Posts Tagged mental health

Online Interactions Are Cultivating Anti-Social Boys

Published by EducationNews.org — How do we help a kid whose social life is mainly with his screens?

The boy shrugs off a question for maybe the 10th time that afternoon.  He seems incapable of simple human interaction.  Mom tries to talk for him as he wriggles and writhes at the table in her impeccable kitchen.  No, she’s told, he needs to be accountable for himself.  This is his problem.  We’ll call him Alex.

Some days back he did a totally stupid thing that scared his entire school community, so he’s being conferenced by a facilitator working in Rhode Island’s newish Restorative Justice initiative.  The adults close to him know his act was mindless.  Alex insists “it was just a joke.”  The police have no sense of humor about such things.  But they are working with the school and conference facilitator to see if a safe, effective alternative can divert this 15-year-old boy of color from the traditional Court route.

Alex absolutely must make amends.  He needs to rebuild the trust he’s destroyed.  He seems almost desperate to do so.  Okay, but how?  Shrug.  Silence.

The facilitator holds a finger up to stop Mom from speaking.  With begging eyes, the boy looks at the facilitator, then at Mom, hoping for help.  He starts to speak, starts again, despairs, and shrugs.  Just to break the ice, the facilitator smiles and asks what he’d like to be doing at this moment?  Alex just wants to be left alone to play his video games and “relax.”  Right.

Learning social skills in cyberspace

The facilitators and schools see an emerging pattern: Some boys feel most at home inside electronic worlds.  Mom, Grandma or whomever can no longer supervise the kids’ addiction to electronic distractions.  Weirdly, some of their male siblings also play the games, but don’t get so hooked.

The pattern includes parents saying that the problem started innocently enough.  The home has an xBox or some way of getting on the internet, just like everyone else.  But at some point it became compulsive.  Even dinner could not compete.

These boys are disengaged from school and are often in trouble, frequently for misuse of electronics.  They lack “sandbox” skills — listening, taking turns, joking in a way that is not infuriating.  Their lame efforts at interacting backfire, so they retreat into telling themselves that everyone dislikes them for no reason.

Another boy, at another school, in a totally unrelated conference, considers his peers to be “horrible.”  His mom explains emphatically that the internet is where his friends are, so there is no question about taking that away from him.  This cheers the gloomy kid up enough to explain that on the internet, when someone is “horrible you can just block them.”  The facilitator wonders if he is ever horrible back.  “Well sure, when they deserve it.”  The facilitator asks if he’s ever horrible to real people, face-to-face?  “I have to be because they are so horrible to me.”

Both he and the mom in this case are sure the problem lies beyond the child and his behavior.  She, like the other moms in these cases, explains the child’s diagnosis.  They are all diagnosed.  They are ADD, oppositional defiant or on the autism spectrum.  They take drugs or get accommodations so they can tolerate being in school.  They shouldn’t be expected to control their behavior because of their condition.  It’s up to those around them to learn to deal with their use of flagrantly ugly language or their scary behavior.

In a convenience society, nothing is quite so inconvenient as a kid

Yes, some kids really do fit the diagnoses.  But I’ve started to think that parents and the media cultivated this behavior pattern.  It starts with the commercial world selling video games that happen to act like heroin with some kids.  Then parents use the games as electronic babysitters, which erodes the parents’ own social skills and supervisory authority.  When the kids get tough to manage, the behavior-control industry steps in with a drug and a diagnosis or an excuse.

Alex, the shrugger, has no interests outside of games and no one he’d like to be with.  With Mom’s help, the facilitator makes an inventory of adults in Alex’s life who could spend time with him.  Over speaker phone, Mom introduces a young uncle to the facilitator, who explains that the boy needs to hang out with people, but no screens of any kind.  The uncle is playful and fun.  Sure, he says, his nephew can tag along on both his standing dates with friends; he plays a physical game with friends one day and hangs out at the mall on another.  The boy seems pleased and agrees to the plan.

Will this pull him into the real world?  It’s a start.  He has to be able to see and understand his behavior’s effect on other people in order to have a successful conference.  Right now that seems a ways off and a lot of work.  But juvenile detention would merely crush him.

Boys who stay locked in cyberspace likely won’t develop into adults that you or I want as neighbors, colleagues or even relatives.  I think cyberspace is getting to be a social-skills killer – at least in certain kids.

(Photo: Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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San Antonio’s Restoration Center Weaves a Social-Support Fabric

Published by EducationNews.org — It can be done:  a coherent and effective system for dealing with mental illness.

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Back in the 1970s, Leon Evans became the director of a community mental health center in San Antonio, Texas.  A social worker by training, Evans knew how to manage organizations that deal with mental illness, keeping afloat often-stressed frontline workers as they serve those suffering all manners of distress.  Little did he know that to succeed, he’d have to build an entirely new model.

Bear in mind that mental illness can mean anything from disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar to the frantic, terrified state of a woman whose partner suddenly abandoned her with three kids.  Mental illness is when a mind’s dysfunction is beyond the TLC of family and friends.

By 2000, San Antonio’s county government tapped Evans and his vast experience to run its entire mental health system.  Immediately this giant bear of a man, an ex-wrestler, looked around and realized that he, the mental health Centers, and the people they served were drowning.  Both the sheer numbers of people and the severity of their illnesses were increasing at rates defeating him and his budget.  Texas is 49th in the nation in funding on mental health.

The jails were stuffed to the gills with people whose real problems were substance abuse, PTSD, and other varieties of mental illness.  Evans couldn’t address his systemic problems without collaborating with the police and judicial system.  This was way easier said than done.  As Evans said in an NPR story, just getting folks to the table was by far the hardest part.  For starters, mental health workers don’t speak the same language as police.  Nor do they share the language, traditions and expectations of doctors, courts, transportation, housing, hospitals, town governments, child protective services or education.  Together they were a public services Tower of Babel.

It took a county judge to help Evans push them together. 

When they finally sat down together, of course, agency representatives found that they were serving many of the same clients — repeatedly and ineffectively.  Recidivism to jails, hospitals and drug treatments was and is astronomically high.  Clients have overlapping needs.  A flare-up of mental illness might precipitate homelessness, alcoholism, the commission of a crime.  Each problem had its own solution from a different agency or system.  The community mental health centers were only one of many systems.

These centers had grown as a response to the 1960′s public outrage sparked by exposes on scandalous hospitals that warehoused the mentally ill.  The resulting “deinstitutionalization” movement involved creating community-based mental health centers to manage the care for the mentally ill in far more humane ways, in home and neighborhood settings.  For a while the system worked well, or at least better.  But over time politicians chipped away at their resources, often reallocating funding to less stigmatized populations.  And no one anticipated the rapid fraying of nuclear and extended families, nor the decline of informal social supports like clubs and churches.  As money tightened, the demand for services grew.

Getting a fix on the public expenditures for mental illness is nearly impossible because the dollars are spread across different agencies’ budgets.  For example, most calculations fail to acknowledge that jails and prisons have become the largest mental health providers in the nation.  According to some estimates, well over half of all people incarcerated suffer some mental dysfunction — substance abuse issues, depression, PTSD, or other ailments.  And I would say that estimate is low.

To work towards a sustainable solution, Evans talked the relevant parties into pooling their money for what he called a “Restoration Center.”  The police contributed their drug seizure money.  The courts, jails, hospitals, and the county government also kicked in.

This money made it possible to run a large one-stop drop-in center where representatives from all the services are co-located.  It has 24/7 psychiatric services to stabilize the mentally ill and get them to an appropriate longer-term facility.  It has a detox program, a homeless shelter across the street, a physician on staff, and so forth.  Sometimes the police bring someone.  Sometimes whole families walk in off the streets.  The Center serves about 18,000 people a year.

The savings to the County so far are about $10 million a year.  As the agencies hone their systems, and as the population hopefully gets healthier, they will save even more.

Thanks to Evans, I now dream of a Restoration Center, but one servicing children and families at the other end of the spectrum where mental illness, homelessness and substance abuse might be prevented.  Evans’ Restoration Center is across from a homeless shelter, but mine would be across from a fabulous park or adventure playground.  There, mental health workers could interact with families to support actual mental health, resilience, social skill-building, and conflict management.  Children would get help at early signs of distress or dysfunction.  Imagine the savings if we did that.

Working together, humans can accomplish the miraculous.  Evans did.  We need more people like him to bulldog us into it.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI school department and the RIDataHUBFor more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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Mental Health Does Not Mean Mental Illness

Published by EducationNews.org — Why the paucity of information about maintaining good mental health?

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I’m sure the ex-Congressman Patrick Kennedy had little to do with the copywriting for his new website, One Mind.  But I wish he’d read it more closely.  Kennedy has done great service lending his celebrity to advocating for the mentally ill in a number of ways.  He’s making the talk show rounds chatting up his book, A Common Struggle, about his own personal story, made fascinating in part by its star-studded cast of family members.  But also, he’s right on the money as to what’s wrong with our mental-health non-system and our attitudes towards those suffering from mental illness.

Perhaps most importantly, his signature legislation, The Mental Health Parity and Substance Abuse Equity Act of 2008, forces insurers to consider funding treatments to an ill mind on a par with treatments to an ill body.  The battle for actual parity is far from won, but Kennedy’s contribution is huge.

Now, via his One Mind site, Kennedy is raising money to conduct research into brain and behavior disorders.  And one of his major efforts will be to reduce stigma.

But here’s a problem: click on the One Mind tab marked “The Epidemic,” and there, in bold black type you find:

“Mental health affects more people than you think.”

This statement reveals a misunderstanding so deep I’d bet even Kennedy might not see it.  When people say “mental health,” what they mean is “mental illness.”  Makes me nuts.  What that sentence intends to say is that “Mental illness affects more people than you think.”  That sentence is painfully correct.  But even it masks the core of a serious problem.

Like having a body, everyone has a mind.  Both body and mind are in some state of health.  A body might have a cold or a broken leg or lung cancer.  Over the past decade, the public has become far more mindful of their physical health — their health, not their illnesses.

But what is mental health?  Even concepts like “substance-abuse prevention” focus on illness. Exactly as with physical health, nurturing robust mental health would also be cheaper in the long run, would improve the quality of our lives, and oh by the way, be a huge favor to the kids.  Helping children learn to be healthy by modeling good mental health habits ourselves is a two-fer — they get healthier because we’re getting healthier.

People and businesses both are changing their behavior to promote and enhance existing good physical health.  The fresh-food movement is now so established that McDonald’s is closing more outlets than they’re opening this year.  Millennials prefer to bike rather than drive, improving the quality of their air while exercising.  Yoga studios abound.

But I challenge you to identify the mental health equivalents of axioms like eat right, don’t smoke and exercise regularly.

Google “mental health” and you will find materials on mental illness.

researcher on TED argues that robust relationships will bring you happiness, but says nothing about mental health.  Happiness is certainly an indication of health, but it might be an unreasonably high bar for describing “mental health.”  Resilience might be better because it implies that mentally healthy people handle adversity more effectively.  The American Psychological Association has suggestions for promoting resilience, which include being hopeful and maintaining a positive self image. But what do you actually do to do that?  We know how to restrict calorie intake when we’re overweight.

Why the paucity of information about maintaining good mental health?  Kennedy likely would argue that it starts with being utterly unable to discuss mental illness.  Physical illness does not remotely carry the stigma that even, say, depression does.  So Kennedy’s One Mind website is right to discuss, openly, what Dr. Judith Herman calls the “unspeakable.”  I admire his advocacy for the mentally-ill.

But we will continue to ignore our own mental health, at our peril, if we continue to use “health” as a euphemism for “illness.”  From my child-oriented point of view, we’ll never be able to help kids thrive until we can help them maintain and promote their own mental health.

The task is to elaborate on the whole spectrum of mental health.  We need more vocabulary and images of those minor, but debilitating, habits of mind that obstruct the lives of “normal” people.  Adults and kids alike need a wealth of go-to-the-gym images for the healthy end of the spectrum.  Kennedy is elegantly positioned to do just that.  Here’s hoping he will.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Why the Every Student Succeeds Act Will Never Work

Published by EducationNews.org — Can we really expect education to improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate?

essay

Given the battlefield that is our current Congress, congratulations to them are in order for agreeing on anything.  Together, miraculously, they revamped the old 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  NCLB was loathed from the get-go.  It was a set-up for failure, since it was and is still statistically impossible to have all children proficient by 2014 or any other date.  NCLB’s set of increasing threats and punishments for under-performing schools produced widespread cheating scandals.  Art and hands-on projects were cut in order to devote time and resources to improving test scores instead of actual learning.  The hostile “accountability” measures backfired so strongly that many states got waiver agreements from the feds to pull the law’s punitive punches.

NCLB’s recently-passed replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), does two things of note.  First, it devolves to the states the power to design their own accountability systems.  This is an improvement, but we’ve been here before.  Some states set such absurdly low thresholds that nearly all of their kids are “proficient,” while simultaneously bombing on the national NAEPs.  Like grade inflation, deeming all kids proficient when they’re not is a kind lie, with unkind consequences.  States will need several years to create and then impose their own systems so everyone will have time to figure out how to spin their kids’ achievement results.  But getting the feds out of the naming-and-shaming game is a big plus.

Secondly, the ESSA removes the mandate that teachers be evaluated according to the kids’ test scores — another statistically absurd idea.  Surely scores will still be used for some evaluations, in some fashion.  But it was outright funny watching states twist themselves into pretzels to assess gym and art teachers’ performance on standardized reading tests, for example.

See here for a side-by-side summary of the old and new laws; just scroll down a bit.

But what’s in it for the kids?

Sadly, not much.

The law has only minor changes to how it allocates dollars — for better or worse.  But for consistency’s sake, the fed money will flow as it has in the past, without interruption and with fewer strings.

And officially removing the nastiness of the “sanctions,” which were punishments for under-performance, might help everyone to relax a bit.  Hopefully some kindness will trickle down to the kids.

However… the law hardly reflects that any of its authors had in mind the actual warm-bodied kids who are involved in education.  The way to improve education is to improve the conditions in which it takes place.  What would nourish curious kids so they can soak up more learning than they did before?  Kids are organic beings.  The fields or flower beds where their minds are being cultivated need rich curricular and strategic nutrients with more access to sunshine and refreshing waters.  As it is, achievement levels will likely remain stagnant or even recede.

The assumption of education is that the acquisition of skills and content is built on a solid foundation of mental health.  Schools are designed to respond to kids who arrive with a reasonable amount of attention that they can give to the business of learning.  In reality, many kids arrive quite distracted for a whole host of reasons, from too much video gaming to full-on trauma.  I resent the people who blame school performance on parents and poverty, but get real.  Struggling families tend to have struggling kids.  Struggling kids act out, withdraw, or see little point in school.  Since 2001 the poverty level among public school children has risen from 38.3% to 49.6% in 2012.  It’s likely that they’ve passed the 50% threshold by now, so more than half of all kids in public schools are living in families where deprivation is the norm.

That’s the tip of the iceberg.  The U.S. has absurdly negative stats showing high rates of premature pregnancy, drug use and disengagement.  In brief:  a huge proportion of U.S. kids are not okay.  And in many cases the troubles at home are then compounded at troubled, overwhelmed schools.

You would think that if you were re-writing the federal education act, the plight of the kids and families might spark a conversation.  Because here we are, once again, going down a road that is statistically impossible.  Education will never improve while the mental health of the students continues to deteriorate.  This doesn’t let the schools off the hook at all.  Like the feds themselves, it’s their job to advocate for the health, well-being and prosperous future of the children under their watch.  No, they don’t think of it as their role, but it’s high time they start if they hope to get anything accomplished.

The Congressional happy-dancing about the Every Child Succeeds Act shows zero political appetite for taking on improving the welfare of the kids.  Once again, this will never work.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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ADHD Overdiagnosis, Prescriptions a Mental Health Crisis

Published by EducationNews.org — For behavioral issues, drugs should be a last resort — especially for kids.

adhd

In the early part of the 20th century, a pediatrician identified what he called “an abnormal defect of moral control in children.” This described kids who had challenging behaviors, but were otherwise intelligent and normal.  Later in the 1950s, the same behaviors were labeled in the US as “hyperkinetic impulse disorder.”  As you’ve guessed, the label morphed eventually to the more familiar ADHD, or just ADD, depending on how physically hyperactive the kid is.

The disorder was obscure until the late 1990s when the rate of diagnoses started to increase by 3% every year.  Remember that the late 1990s was also the era of “zero tolerance” and the massive spike in school suspensions and expulsions.  The crack cocaine epidemic spawned widespread, and now unfounded fears, of “super-predator kids” who would grow up to be aggressive and violent.

Perhaps most importantly, the traditional family, which had started to dissolve in the late 1960s, began to fray the culture as a whole.  Fewer children were being raised in two-parent families, attached to extended families, consistent neighborhoods, faith-based communities and common norms.  Increasing numbers of kids were coming to school with behavior that was less please-and-thank-you and more rude and defiant of authority.

Then, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the mid-2000s new ADHD diagnoses increased by 5% a year.  Most recently the rate mushroomed by 7%, and now fully 11% of the U.S. population between ages 5 to 17 have been diagnosed with just over 6% taking medication to control their behavior.  Some psychiatrists question the healthiness of these rates and ADHD’s biological origins.  Skeptics consider the meds “chemical restraint.”

Personally, I think that we’re caring for a garden by spraying it with weed killer rather than doing the work of pulling the behavioral weeds.

Pills are so easy.

I fully understand the public concern over the horror of the current drug overdose epidemic, but it affects fewer people than we think.  The public seems to take little notice of the spread of ADHD to double-digit proportions of our school-age children, who might be suffering from totally normal attributes of exuberant, play-loving, wriggly childhood.  Yes, a few young people do seem biologically ill-programmed.  But most of the “bad” kids I see desperately need more time to run, scream, play, roam, even wrestle and rough-house.  They need lives that are far more hands-on than eons of time parked in front of electronics.  They can’t sit in classroom seats for literally hours at a stretch.  If “sitting is the new cancer,” why is it okay for kids?

This is personal for me.  From kindergarten to senior year, the schools that one of my three sons attended insisted I medicate him for ADHD.  The diagnostic checklists of symptoms for the disorder included being fidgety, disorganized, and distracted.  That could be you or me on a hectic day.  He wasn’t bad so much as annoying — super fidgety and off in space.  So every year when administrators, psychologists, teachers made the pitch, I asked:  What’s the message?  (Say no to drugs?)  What’s the end game?  (Does he ever wean off?)  What are the side effects?  And since I stipulate that he’s profoundly ADHD, how will he ever learn to deal with it if we mask it with drugs?  (It wasn’t easy, but he’s now a married, successful working professional who still gets scattered.)

Children and youth are not machines who need a tweak, a tune-up or new part.

No one likes irritating or disruptive behavior.  But taxpayers, and many parents and teachers, would like irritating behavior changed in a manner that’s fast, easy and cheap.  That’s not going to happen.  In fact, while ADHD drugs can give support to a few kids, mostly drugs are a short-term fix to deeper problems that will re-surface later on.  Problems like:  Are there routines at home?  Structure to the day?  Caring, but firm adults, who are themselves reasonably functional?  If not, the kid’s likely to broadcast his chaos or distress with misbehavior.  (Most are boys.)

Even so, the CDC reports that fewer than “1 in 3 children with ADHD received both medication treatment and behavioral [talk] therapy, the preferred treatment approach for children ages 6 and older.”  Talk therapy costs time and money.  Many adults resist letting their kids go to therapy asserting they don’t believe in it — which conveniently avoids having a therapist turn the tables and hold anyone besides the kid accountable.

About the babies, the report says, “Only half of preschoolers (4-5 years of age) with ADHD received behavioral therapy… and 1 in 4 were treated only with medication.”  Nuts.

We can’t fix kids’ behavior.  A fix implies a solution that will make whatever problem it is go away.  But conflict and problems do not go away.  They’re baked into life as deeply as death and love, both of which cause a great deal of problematic behavior that mostly need attention and empathetic care.  Drugs should be a last resort — especially for kids.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Justice System Can’t Ignore Mental Health

Published by EducationNews.org — We need to understand each other’s stories for justice to get done.

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Chief Judge Pamela Williams, Provincial and Family Courts of Nova Scotia

A woman we’ll call Jane embezzled money from her company. She’d been feeding a nasty gambling habit and her boss figured it out.  She was arrested, jailed, and wound up in front of a judge.

Now, what would normally happen at this point in her story is that the courts would determine her guilt or innocence, via lawyers and evidence.  Actually, her crime was so blatant, they hardly needed to bother.  After exhausting a lot of resources proving the obvious, she normally would have been sentenced and added to the prison population for who-knows-how long.

Instead, lucky Jane came before Judge Pamela Williams, who then presided over the mental health court in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Williams has since become the Chief Judge of the region’s Family Courts.  Her career began with 20 years working with Legal Aid, focusing mostly on the mentally ill, drug-addicted, poor, and illiterate.  In 2003 she was appointed to be a judge in the juvenile justice courts.  In that role, she made a name for herself by radically reducing recidivism, which really should be the point of a court system.  Her success led to her being tapped to develop a specialized mental health court in 2010.  It was there that she met Jane.

For years, Jane had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. 

Jane gambled compulsively during her manic episodes.  This is by no means excuses what she did.  But she was falling apart.  Her marriage was on the rocks, and of course her former employer all but wanted blood.  The traditional justice system is not really set up to consider the conditions in which a crime is committed.  A crook is a crook, no matter the complicated circumstances such as mental illness.

Whether in Halifax or the U.S., the mentally ill tend to get involved with the law, which only sees guilt and innocence as the issue, not how to stop the cycle.  In America, the largest mental health facilities are prisons.

When working in the juvenile justice system, Williams began using restorative justice techniques.  As such, she used the occasion of the crime as a red flag signaling mental or social illness.  Before passing judgment, she reached out to the kid’s immediate and extended family, social services, teachers, and whomever could help get him or her out of whatever wretched place they were in and onto a more productive road.

When possible, the offender would face his victims and hear their experience.  The kid needed to make things right by doing restitution and taking responsibility for her actions.  But the group needed to get to the root problem and solve it so the community was not continuously harmed by the anti-social behavior, or recidivism would surely occur.  Not surprisingly, the RJ is far more effective at reducing reoffending than traditional justice, because its techniques unpack mitigating circumstances like mental illness.

Jane’s was a relatively simple case.  

Williams got professionals involved to get her stabilized on proper drugs.  Once she was stable, Jane’s husband was willing to let those same professionals educate him about the illness itself and what he could do to de-escalate her symptoms and to take care of himself.  She learned to be more responsible; he learned to avoid being victimized by her.

Once Jane had a support system in place, Williams held a RJ conference (meeting) with the employer who, frankly, called Jane a liar and a thief.  But when he heard the larger story about her journey with mental illness, he felt less targeted and also less victimized.  The conference participants helped her figure out how to make restitution to the employer.  He walked away satisfied.

Williams says, “Once we understand each others’ stories, it helps.  Jane heard how her actions had affected others.”  She felt the hurt she’d caused.  Her remorse motivates her to be med compliant and self-controlled.  End of story.

The Courts never saw her again.  A very good thing.  We need to understand more about mental health courts because they have the ability to stop whatever cycle the troubled person is in.

We’ll hear more of William’s fund of cases and experiences in the coming couple of weeks.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Three Reasons American Kids Suffer from Depression

Published by EducationNews.org — A kid can’t succeed if she’s already telling herself she’s a full-on loser.

depression

As America wrestles with improving its lackluster schools, we need to stop asking:  How do we win the international test score competitions?  We’ve taken that pursuit absolutely as far as we can go, and it’s not working.  The question should be:  What equips kids to be successful?

In his excellent work How Children Succeed, Paul Tough discovered that the answers to that very question had far more to do with mental health than with Common Core, blended learning or any education-specific strategy.  God knows how mental health got so divorced from education, but it did.  Clearly, depressed, traumatized, even merely upset kids don’t learn well.  So you would think that cultivating the conditions for mental, social, and emotional health would best leverage efforts to improve academic health.  Tough’s book led me to Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the psychological science of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which was designed to treat debilitating depression.

CBT works on undoing the effects of negative self-talk.  Everyone has nasty messages in their heads:  “I can’t do that.”  Or:  “I’m fat, stupid, poor, etc.”  Or:  “Bad things always happen to me.”  CBT offers good mental-hygiene skills that can be taught to anyone, but think especially of middle school kids who become increasingly, and painfully, aware of themselves.  Life may be hard, but kids’ ability to talk optimistically to themselves helps to avoid making real adversity worse than it already is.  Rotten self-talk feeds depression and helplessness.

While Seligman’s CBT techniques are fascinating, I was most stunned by his cautionary introduction about what he considers to be the scourge of depression in America.  He names three forces that explain why, according to mountains of evidence, Americans are far more depressed than they were several generations ago when the country was poorer and less powerful.

Reason # 1:  In all cases, depression is a disorder of the “I.” 

Encased in our own narcissism, too many of us fail to reach our own goals according to our own standards.  Seligman writes, “In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world.  Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.”  In our own eyes, none of us is adequately thin, rich, famous or smart.  We can’t live up to standards set by celebrities.  But if we can’t win, we don’t want to play.  A kid can’t succeed if she already is telling herself she’s a full-on loser.

Reason #2:  As “I” becomes awesomely important, “we” loses value.

In Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, the profoundly lonely adolescent Frankie keens for the “we of me.”  Experts exhort us to understand how badly students need a sense of “belonging.”  It’s a prerequisite to learning.  And yet the culture has dismantled traditional social structures that once cultivated “we” (see: Bowling Alone), but put nothing in their place.  Seligman has this to say:

“Individual failure used to be buffered by the second force, the large “we.”  When our grandparents failed, they had comfortable spiritual furniture to rest in.  They had, for the most part, their relationship to God, to a nation they loved, their relationship to a community and a large extended family.  Faith in God, community, nation and the large extended family have all eroded in the last forty years, and the spiritual furniture we used to sit in has become threadbare.”

Only a counterbalancing “we” can address the narcissistic disorder of the “I.”  Mental health is dependent on relationships, even networks of relationships.  Every kid needs multiple adults — and other kids, of course — to care about them in good times and bad.  Without close relationships, depression is right around the corner.

Reason # 3:  The self-esteem movement feeds toxic narcissism. 

Seligman loathes the self-esteem movement.  He pegs its inception to be in the 1960s, when no one was supposed to feel badly about themselves, no matter what.  Mind you, strong self-esteem is a fine thing – but only when it is an earned feeling gained by succeeding in school or work, or behaving well towards those you love.  Generations before the 1960s read their children The Little Engine That Could to teach the idea that in the face of adversity, persistence and hard work could overcome obstacles.

As Seligman puts it, “This is a movement that made competition a dirty word.  This is a movement that has led to less plain old hard work.”  To boot, Seligman references the rich research showing that some of the highest self-esteem is found among violent criminals and gang leaders.  He says “… depression and violence both come from this misbegotten concern: valuing how our young people feel about themselves more highly than how well they are doing in the world.”

It’s no favor to send kids with delusions of enormous self-worth into our tough world.  What they really need is a reality-based sense of mastery.  Teaching a kid persistence is hard, but it can be done and done kindly.  Grit, resilience, impulse control, social skills all can be taught.  Yes, teaching such disciplines is tons harder than being the kids’ friend and enabler.  But that is what will help them to gain strong mental health and to succeed.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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5 Smart Ideas for Reducing the Effects of Kids’ Trauma

Published by EducationNews.org — Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.

trauma_kid

Out there — in schools, playgrounds, pediatricians’ offices, neighborhoods and summer camps — are traumatized kids.  Some have witnessed violence in the home, suffered the death of a parent or loved one, lost their home in a fire, or been sexually abused.  Others belong to a culture that has such harsh child-rearing norms that they’re routinely abused verbally or physically.  Some have alcoholic or drug-addled parents or live in chaotic or scary homes.  Others bounced from home to home, or even country to country, for lots of reasons.

Most stupidly, some kids have been so coddled and protected from adversity that they’re crushed by events that resilient kids can overcome.

So, for various reasons, lots of the kids wriggling around in our worlds have experienced trauma.  They don’t wear signs announcing the state of their inner worlds, except when they act out with the anti-social behavior we all find maddening.  They can seem utterly normal until something triggers festering memories and feelings, driving the kid’s behavior or health kablooey.

Trauma-informed environments have five core concepts.

In last week’s column, Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D., taught us about what trauma is.  This week she’ll help us understand how to create environments that are prepared to handle traumatized kids and to prevent triggering trauma or escalating a boil-over.

1.  First, and most importantly, assume trauma.  No matter how “nice” your school or neighborhood, assume it’s there.  Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “Think in terms of basic infection control. Use universal precautions. We assume the presence of infection, so we wash our hands.”  One trauma-informed version of hand-washing is to delete the idea that there are “bad” kids.  Instead, work together on strengthening the relationships among adults and kids in your institution.  Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.

Then, Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “If trauma is disclosed, you already have a gentle environment that can work with professionals to help the healing. If it’s not disclosed, healing can happen on its own. And if there never was trauma in the first place, the child still has a gentle environment.”

Note that “gentle” is the operant concept. Nurturing, kind. She didn’t say this, but I suggest that every effort to eliminate yelling at the kids is a great place to start. As one student said to a teacher in a mediation, “Mistah, my step-father yells at me all the time and you sound just like him.  Makes me want to hit you.”  It’s hard, but we need to keep our tempers in check.  Yelling with even a hint of aggression can trigger trauma, and it certainly doesn’t model pro-social behavior.

2.  “Trauma is global.  It affects any aspect of a person’s functioning.”  The effects show up in a kid’s physical, mental, behavioral or social health.

Paccione-Dyszlewski walks us through considerable brain science, but the bottom line — especially for you school-based people — is that trauma stops a kid’s ability to learn.  They’re surviving, that’s all.  Most obviously with little kids, trauma creates developmental delays, early lags in language and cognitive function, and difficulty maintaining attention and concentration.  Emotional trauma affects all systems very much like a traumatic brain injury.

3.  “Trauma affects relationships, and dramatically.”  All kids need to learn two things:  emotional regulation (managing their feelings and behavior) and trust.  If there’s no one they trust, they brim over with unmet needs.  Only major interventions to help them forge a relationship will prevent them from announcing their emotional poverty with a lot of illness or behavior that gets negative attention.

4.  “Trauma can be treated.”  When a kid is in full-blown crisis, insurance might pay for so many outpatient visits or so much hospitalization.  But professional services can only be part of the healing network of relationships that a kid needs over time.  I wrote some months ago about inspirational Leeds, England, which is targeting City efforts and resources to helping families, schools and neighborhoods become healthy enough to manage their own conflicts and issues.  Leeds’ leadership wouldn’t exactly say they’re becoming a trauma-informed city, but I think Paccione-Dyszlewski would.  They’re investing in strong family relationships within a gentle, city-wide network of support.

5.  And lastly, “trauma-informed institutions have a caregiver focus.  Pediatricians, childcare workers, teachers — trauma affects who we are.”  Being around trauma is hard.  But institutions can become traumatizing themselves.  Administrators need to model how adults take good care of one another or they won’t be helpful to kids.

Paccione-Dyszlewski wistfully notes that elsewhere, in some countries far more trauma-ridden than ours, stronger communities work more purposely on developing what she calls “common language.”  Speaking a language of social rules and conventions helps all people, young and old, remember how to be good to one another.

Relationships are the universal precaution for trauma.  Institutions need to take note.

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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The Inspirational Virtues of Summer Boredom

Published by EducationNews.org

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” — Dorothy Parker

A 2013 review of the literature published by Behavior Sciences concludes that boredom motivates a desire for change, new goals, experiences and pursuits.  “Boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed.”  — On the Function of Boredom.

Boredom can be seriously toxic in certain circumstances — like smart kids enduring a tedious lesson.  But it can also be just what the doctor ordered.

In the pre-electronics age, a time quickly joining antiquity, my summer break from school was punctuated with boredom sometimes verging on physically painful.  Except for the annual two-week family vacation, my parents’ life went on as usual.  Entertaining us was not their job.  We could play, after all.  They worked.  Oh, they’d take us to the movies sometimes, the beach, someone’s pool.  My father might play ping pong or cards.  But essentially we were on our own.  They had zero sympathy for our plight.

Even with my big imagination and epic fantasy life, I could fall into a dull passivity that ached with the feeling I was owed distraction and entertainment.  On one hot mid-summer day, I sprawled out on the slope of the front lawn for all the neighborhood to see how utterly uncared-for I was.  I wanted aliens, traveling circus troupes or any sort of fun-lovers to rescue me with any sort of diverting jumper cables to spark my spoiled, entitled paralysis.  I imagine my mother glancing out the window, dishrag in hand, exasperated with her demanding daughter.  But it wasn’t her problem.

Since the naked ape became upright, kids have hated boredom so badly that it spurred them to act.  Get your own butt off that grass and get engaged in something.  When distractions are unavailable, curiosity will set in.  Besides passive rescue, what does your inner voice want?  What interests it?  Let that voice grow louder.  It has urges.  It has ideas.  It wonders…

One solution was to go find a friend.  But while my sisters had a wealth of playmates in our big-family neighborhood, the kids my age were all boys and no fun.

I liked making things.  Our world was full of tools, scrap wood, sand piles, dirt, water, and random junk for creating environments for imaginary beings or willing pets.

But sometimes the listlessness was so great, I resentfully gravitated towards books.  At summer’s start, books could feel like the school from which I’d been liberated.  In time though, literary adventures in foreign lands and unfamiliar times were a godsend.

Our local library ran summer competitions.  If you read a book and wrote a paragraph about it, assuring the librarians that you didn’t merely skim, they’d post it on corkboard walls put up for the purpose.  They gave prizes — the most books read, best writing, best handwriting, best illustration, best summary, best whatever.  Prizes included candy, because like constant entertainment, candy was also not then in constant supply.  The incentives worked.  Soon the neighborhood kids and I were all vying for the library’s honors.

Besides, the library building somehow stayed cool longer than others.  Comfortable seats looked out on a shady garden, also a pretty backdrop to daydreams.  I scanned the walls to admire my own paragraphs and to monitor the competition.  More than once I emerged from a story mortified to see my mother marching at me with pursed lips, wondering what happened to my promise to be home at such-and-such hour?

Oh I know. Books are passe.  They’re the sort of thing an older writer might mention as a cure for summer ennui.  But these days my electronic in-box is crammed with articles and despairful research on “summer learning loss,” all of which propose solving by giving kids a ton more school.  Yes, these days what most kids do in their downtime is largely brain deadening.  Still, the educational hand-wringers never suggest that the kids need time to build, roam, investigate, settle disputes with friends, invent games.  And they certainly never propose helping them develop pursuits of their own that could ignite curiosity into questions that a nice librarian might help with.  As an industry, Education accidently turned books into a colossal chore, when they really can be entertaining and just what kids want.  Books speak to and with that inner voice.  Video games, TV and texting just shut it out.

As a friend says: attention is currency; spend it wisely.  If good things — friends, construction materials and books are at hand — kids will marshal their own attention to concentrate in healthy ways.  These articles in my inbox are always looking to provide kids with improving experiences, when what they really need are safe neighborhoods with good libraries and fewer e-distractions, where they can invent themselves and worlds of their own.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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2014, When All Kids’ Performance Were Supposed To Be Equal

Published by EducationNews.org — I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids.

In January 2002, the worker bees were settling into their jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Education after the Christmas break.  I was sniffing around for stories and ran into Dr. Dennis Cheek, the head of research, who was uncharacteristically angry, pounding about his business and repeating, “Not statistically possible!”

I figured Cheek was referring to the late 2001 Congressional passage of reams of changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The new monstrosity was No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  Like most American-education reform, it had very little to do with children, never mind how they learn.

He looked up, saw me and snarled that we were being set up for failure.  While 2014 seemed comfortably far off at the time, Cheek was quite sure states and schools couldn’t lockstep all children in all schools so that by 2014 they’d all be “proficient,” per the mandate of the new federal law.  Given how clueless that mandate was, could schools make any academic progress at all?  He accurately predicted widespread cheating on tests.  He predicted that the states would set their cut scores with pathetically low goals to protect schools from being labeled failures.  Cheek had no patience with bad teachers, curricula or leadership.  But the law was all stick, no carrot, threatening under-performing schools with increasing sanctions.  Common sense argues that setting an unreachable goal will not inspire anyone’s best work.

I wasn’t taking notes, but at the end of his rant, he barked, “And you can quote me.”

So here we are:  2014.  My, how time flies.  What did we learn?

I learned two things.  The first is that having good data is really useful.  The results of the NCLB tests were disaggregated by race, gender and poverty, so the world could see if any kids were being discriminated against.  (They were.)  NCLB forced all states to collect much better data on their students, so people like me can now see the education landscape with increasingly clarity.  If you know what you’re doing, “anchoring” statistics can verify the quality of statistics.  All facts are friendly.  Having good facts helps us help kids.

Ah, but do we actually want to help children?  I ask because the second big take-away from NCLB, to my mind, is that it proved that we’ll never be able to punish students or schools into improvement.  Won’t happen.

Maybe only a researcher like Cheek fully understood the impossibility of arriving at nirvana in 2014.  But along with pretty much everyone, he hated the punitive approach built into the law.  As a compulsive reader of international education and child welfare news, I can tell you that American culture is unique in its faith in punishment as a solution to problems.  We believe in bad kids and bad schools that should just be eliminated if we can’t somehow beat their badness out of them.

Kids behave badly if no one teaches them the rules, or helps them learn community-appropriate habits.  Or they misbehave as a way of flagging trouble of some kind, at home, among bullies, academic struggles, or whatever.  There are no bad kids, only bad behaviors.  No evidence shows that loveless, alienating, retributive discipline produces anything but rotten academic achievement.

Similarly, punishing under-performing schools abdicates responsibility for getting at the root of why they’re producing such bad results.  Generally, bad schools are horribly organized or governed.  For example, school labor and management personnel often have conflicting goals, focusing attention on the interests of the adults.  When adults fight, punishing one another for this and that, student achievement suffers.

Under NCLB, schools labeled bad, however euphemistically, had to send letters home to parents confessing and explaining their scarlet “F.”  Continued poor performance forced them to divert their precious Title 1 funds — for the free-lunch kids — to educational-support agencies of dubious quality, anointed by the feds, like corporate tutoring companies.  NCLB gave states a taste for publicly grading their schools for an annual naming-and-shaming exercise, as if the students in the building didn’t get chewed up in the process.

Such mean behavior isn’t built into the Common Core, the newest massive education movement.  Let’s see if we can manage to use the data for something more positive this time around.

Still, I wish America could see how mean it is to its kids.  How can smart adults not see that their desire to help kids become “globally competitive” is an adult wish?  What kids want and need is attention, kindness, safety and help — long before they get near any desire to beat out Korea and Finland.  Kids need clear consequences for their foolish actions, like letting them get an “F” when they deserve one.  But they don’t need punishment.  And neither do the schools.

It’s 2014, and the kids aren’t in significantly better shape than they were in 2001.  They didn’t become proficient because frightened school personnel force-fed them test-prep.  Punishment didn’t work.  It was a dismal failure.  In 2014, the question before us is:  what will work?  Only, let’s be honest this time.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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