Posts Tagged resilience

Trauma and the Growing Number of Hard-to-Manage Kids

Published by — Kids with a significant history of trauma get a reputation for being bad kids, which only makes things worse.


Today we’re at a training in Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Adolescents.  Hosted by Bradley Hospital, the oldest pediatric mental-health facility in the country, our teacher is Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, PhD.  The hosts know I’m there partly as a journalist and partly as a restorative practitioner working with a lot of core-urban kids who are awash with trauma.

Paccione-Dyszlewski emphasizes that “trauma is extreme stress that affects a person’s ability to cope.”  And that “the trauma of children has an impact on everyone around them.  So kids with a significant history of trauma get a reputation for being bad kids, which only makes things worse.”

Trauma-informed care is essentially a shift in philosophy that emphasizes exploring the trauma driving unwanted behavior.  There usually is trauma, after all.  It runs a wide gamut from mild to severe — from a bout of anxiety after a bad fender-bender to violent acting out as a result of prolonged sexual abuse.  The younger a person is when the trauma takes root, the harder it is to heal.

The good doctor apologizes for what she’s about to do.  Then, on a large screen flash some of the most famous of the photographs of the 911 attack on the Twin Towers.  Shoulders droop; smiles fade; people look away.  You could hear a pin drop, but the discomfort was palpable.

She allowed some aggrieved complaint from her audience, most of whom work on the exhausting front lines dealing with distressed kids.  They hadn’t anticipated a super-yucky emotional experience in what they thought would be a refreshing, intellectually-nourishing day off from stress.

The point is that everyone experiences trauma at some point. 

Paccione-Dyszlewski tells us its defining feature is the “disregulation of emotional states.”  Trauma is not itself a discrete emotion, like joy or rage, but a roller coaster of all kinds of feelings that can be triggered by just about anything, including mere photographs of the national trauma we all lived through.

Those of us in the audience bounce back from our irritations, sweaty palms and nervous stomach brought on by the 911 trigger. She says, “Because we’re relatively mature, well-regulated adults, we cope.”

She made her point.  We were upset, but we certainly had not watched Mom get beaten up by the boyfriend or our beloved older brother get shot in a drive-by.  The photos didn’t seriously challenge our ability to cope.  We don’t have an emotional water table already so full of trauma that one more drop — a perceived insult, someone yelling — is enough to make the emotions come spilling over.  Okay, then how do we help kids whose out-of-control behavior is driving everyone nuts to learn to cope in community-appropriate ways?

Let’s back up to what mentally healthy looks like. 

No one can protect kids from adversity.  Adversity lies in wait.  That’s life.  But kids who have strong relationships can be protected from its long-lasting, toxic effects.  As soon as they’re mobile, kids crawl, toddle or run into their worlds to do what their brain is designed to do:  explore and learn.  Inevitably they fall-down-go-boom, encounter hot, loud, scary, or mean.  But healthy kids bee-line back to their secure relationship.  They cry, rock, receive comfort, regroup, and are off again.  They trust that someone will respond promptly, regularly and with empathy.  Eventually they learn to soothe themselves and to regulate their own emotions.  Managing adversity without its becoming traumatic enhances learning.

Strong connections are the way humans gain mental health, but also recover it.  Brain researchers argue that the way to heal trauma starts with establishing consistent, warm, caring relationships that many kids never had in the first place.  In fact, unless a kid can develop a relationship with someone whom she values and trusts, she may never give a fig about how her wretched behavior affects others.  Helping traumatized kids care for someone is the only way to turn the Titanic of deep-rooted, anti-social behavior.

But how labor-intensive is that?  Totally.  Making relationships can take frustrating amounts of time.  It’s hard for healthy adults to make friends in a new city, never mind for a truly traumatized child to learn to trust someone.  So time will be a factor in changing these maddening kids’ behavior.

Yet, “Every time there’s an opportunity to show concern, it starts to promote the corrective experience and undo the worst of the trauma,” says Paccione-Dyszlewski.

Of course, a school, a medical practice, or any institution that works with kids usually has other important work it’s trying to get done.  Who’s got time to fuss about building strong relationships in the short school day that’s crammed with so much else?

Next week Paccione-Dyszlewski will help us see how such institutions could become “trauma-informed” and thus more effective.  She didn’t call her techniques “Restorative.”  But I would.


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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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We’re Crippling Our Kids with Fear

Published by — What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “The world is terrifying and you can’t handle it, so we’ll protect you.”

While hiking in the Finger Lakes region, I watched as a three-year-old did a major face plant on a stone path.  Fellow hikers gasped with horrified “Oh, no!”s and were about to lurch forward to… well, I’m not sure what they thought they would do.  But the mom raised her hands in a big back-off gesture and frowned fiercely.  “Let’s see if she handles it,” she said quietly so as not to wreck the kid’s concentration.  The small crowd held its breath.

So, with only grunts, the sturdy little darling hoisted herself up to all-fours, butt in the air, tested her balance, and rose.  She and mom exchanged a glance and a nod that confirmed that she was all set.  The child toddled on.  Mom did not gush “good job!” at her or smother her with sympathy.  She did glare at us.

Mom took the mishap in stride, and clearly felt the rest of us should too.  Falls happen.  Expect them.  Adversity happens.  Inevitably.  ‘Cause that’s life.  Be careful, but don’t be afraid.  Fear is limiting.  And learning to manage your own recovery and restoration will prevent unnecessary future falls better than anything.  The older a kid gets, the less Mom will be there when adversity happens.  And that’s how it should be.

Instead, communities want laws that criminalize youthful independence.

I thought America had reached its peak for over-cautiousness, but no.  Recently a North Carolina mom was arrested for letting her 9-year-old go by herself to play in a safe public park full of kids and fun stuff to do.  Another mother called the cops.  The police collaborated with that helicopter mom to give the “bad mother’s” child a stern lesson in the evils of independence.  The kid hadn’t yet learned the world is an unmanageably scary place.  But thanks to this incident she’ll be scared to death henceforth that her self-reliance will put her into foster care and get her mom some jail time.

That North Carolina arrest was no anomaly. A poll conducted by Reason-Rupe found that a whopping 68 percent of their sample of Americans felt that the law should require 9-year-olds to be supervised in public parks.  At nine?!  We’re making healthy independence illegal and ensuring that kids grow up fearing their own neighborhoods and public spaces.

I hate to date myself, but when we were 9 or even younger, my friends and I were off into the big bad world with only strict orders to be home when the street lights when on.  Often we rode our bikes to a commercial street at least a mile away from the house.  And if we were stupid enough to let our bikes get stolen, oh well.  Such are the consequences of carelessness.  We were expected to handle our own squabbles, our own troubles, unless, as was sometimes the case, we couldn’t.  Once a group of older bullies would not leave us alone, so we agreed to rat them out to our respective parents.  The parents dealt with it.  No one called the cops.  And this was not Mayberry, but Los Angeles.

The recent poll goes on: 43 percent think 12-year-olds should be supervised at parks.  OMG.  Twelve-year-olds who’ve been shielded from unsupervised socializing with other kids become entitled little beasts who don’t know what hurts or offends, or in any case don’t care.  Maybe we want them supervised in order to protect ourselves from what they’ve become.  Parents should be the backup at age 12, not the kid’s first line of defense.  Kids will grow up, whether we like it or not.  So they need to be confident they can solo safely, socially, healthily when no mommie’s around.

Resilient kids fall down, go boom and recover.

Preventing kids from even the smallest risk is now the cultural norm of “good” parents.  Moms such as the one hiking with her three-year-old are often called “free range” moms, referring to the free-range chickens that get to run around instead of living out their lives in cages.  “Good” parents now metaphorically cage their kids by keeping them indoors, supervised at all times, and doing only what adults teach or direct them to do.  (No one seems to care about the substantial risks of kids living in the world of electronic entertainment, risks such as obesity and anti-social behavior.)  But this kind of protectiveness is like dressing kids in a ton of Medieval armor and hoping they’ll dance through life.  Young American can-do spirit is now met with “Watch out!” and “Be careful!” and “Stop, you’ll hurt yourself!”  Have we thought through what sorts of young adults we’re aiming towards as the result of all this protection?  Will they have the resilience, autonomy and common sense to solo out there in the real world?

What I hear us saying to the kids is:  “We don’t believe in you.  The world is terrifying and we know you can’t handle it.  So we’ll protect you and prepare you for a life without adversity.  Which is to say we won’t prepare you at all.”

Keeping kids scared will warp their adult chances at becoming resilient, innovative or much fun to be with.  I think that the nation’s poor academic performance stems from shielding kids from learning life’s basics.  What a nasty thing to do to 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 or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Colorado Cuts School Exclusions, Racial Disparities Persist

Published by — Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills.

Last year in Colorado, a group called Padres Y Jovenes Unidos (Parents and Youth United) managed to get their Legislature to pass the “Smart School Discipline Law.”  Now schools must, by law, userestorative justice or other disciplinary policies before resorting to the harsh punishments of suspension, expulsion, or at worst, referral to law-enforcement.”  In other words, Colorado’s schools had to turn down the spigot that streams kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.  Very civilized.

Then this past March the parents’ group reported that in less than a year, suspensions were down statewide by a healthy 10 percent and expulsions by a stunning 25 percent.  How lovely to live in a state whose schools would jump on such an initiative so enthusiastically.  The results were uneven among schools, so some apparently didn’t bother.  But most did.

However — and this is big — the pattern of racial disparities did not change.  Reductions were roughly the same across all groups, so the all-too-familiar gaps remained the same.  While upsetting, it’s no big surprise.  Much about school kick-out culture is just silly.  But there are other deeper, culturally-rooted issues.  I’ll touch on each.

Suspensions are a lazy, useless way to deal with poor social skills. 

Rhode Island’s suspension data, which I know intimately, is typical of urbanized states and easy to summarize.  Of the 39 offenses that gets kids suspended71 percent of them last year were for these 5 offenses:

*  Attendance-Cut/Skipped Class

*  Attendance-Cut/Skipped Detention

*  Insubordination/Disrespect

*  Attendance/Left School Grounds

*  Disorderly Conduct

Yes, disrespect can get ugly.  But in the scheme of things, these offenses are pretty small potatoes.  Like the national data, RI’s suspensions reveal that real problems — drug-dealing, violence — are quite rare.  But if kids mouth off or avoid class, they get an awful lot of vacations on the couch in front of the TV.  They learn nothing.

Until this past year, Rhode Island schools suspended kids for bunking school.  Yep, let’s make the problem worse.

Not to disparage their feat, but I’m betting the go-getter Colorado schools merely took on the task, at last, of dumping such counter-productive policies.  Kids greatly prefer TV to being held accountable for their behavior.  It’s super-convenient to toss a misbehaving kid out of school, while it’s a bit of work to treat brat behavior as a teachable moment.  Colorado is showing that schools can find productive solutions to obnoxious behavior.

Changing racial disparities will be a heavier lift. 

Race is highly correlated with poverty.  So no, the racial disparities that are driven by aggressive street culture are not going to disappear soon.  Schools don’t have to make things worse with kick-out culture.  But it’s understandable and super-common that low-income families who struggle to survive teach their kids jungle-survival skills.

Recently a doe-eyed 8th grader talked about being suspended constantly in her old school, mainly for fighting.  This past September her family moved from one poor city to another, and she began attending a school that uses restorative practices.  She told funny stories about her beginnings as a hellion who was flunking everything, but then worked with school adults — Guidance, social services and others — who helped her take charge of the behavior that was getting her nowhere.  With mixed glee and chagrin she confessed “I liked fighting.  But I was getting an 8 in science,” out of 100.  As though it were miraculous, she enthused, “Now I’m getting an 86 in science!”  Then she took a deep breath, sighed and said, “But my dad doesn’t really get it.”

Actually, Dad is furious about her becoming a peaceful good student.  Like millions of American urban kids, she’s been growing up on seriously mean streets.  So her father taught her to fight first and ask questions later.  In effect, a positive school culture came between her and her dad.  Dad’s buy-in is still very much a work in progress.

Even so, she’s a success story.  Many aren’t.  Low-income homes and ‘hoods too often steep kids in hostile, foul-mouthed environments, so where on earth would they learn otherwise unless someone took the trouble to teach them?  At urban schools, street culture collides with the values of building academic skills to gain credentials, degrees and skilled jobs.  Kicking kids out puts them back where they learned to swear and fight in the first place.

But the Colorado schools are on their way, impressively.  Surely they’ll get increasingly adept at teaching community-appropriate behavior.  Silly suspensions will fade.  But cultural issues will persist because they’re embedded in the communities themselves.  The hard problems will require working closely with the parents and community.  And that will take time, effort and resources.

No school should put up with rotten behavior.  But kicking kids out just postpones the real work.  Colorado’s gutsy law will provide rich lessons for the rest of the states.  The sooner the better.

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, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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The Educational Use and Abuse of Shame

Published by — Conscience isn’t innate.  We learn it.

Shame.  A feeling we all hate.  A subject we avoid.  Our faces flush when we can suddenly see ourselves being the sort of person even we don’t like.  Guilt is also unpleasant, with regret and remorse about something we did, a hurtful action.  Shame is “I am bad” as opposed to “I did something bad.”

When I was in graduate school, I was so clever as to make people laugh at a fellow student who often spouted impossibly-abstract ideas that I ridiculed.  But in a seminar one day, while victoriously scanning the amusement I’d caused — along with his pained forbearance — I saw myself as a camera might.  He’d never been anything but respectful and kind to me.  I was mortified — so red-faced people asked if I were all right.  I didn’t have the decency to apologize to him, then or later.  But henceforth I was keenly aware of my sharp tongue.  I reined it in, not just for poor Andy — if you’re out there, I’m apologizing now — but for all those who might be material for one of my cheap jokes.  I’m still ashamed.

But that’s the point.  If you can see your own bad behavior, that yucky shame is likely to guide you towards changing the behavior.  Helping people change their own behavior is the goal of all real discipline, a word that means “to teach.”  So whether you see your obnoxiousness on your own, as I did in that seminar, or by empathizing with those you’ve harmed or offended, shame pushes you to behave in socially-appropriate ways.

The renowned Australian criminologist John Braithwaite takes this point even further in his 1989 book Crime, Shame and Reintegration:  shame is how we acquire conscience.  Conscience isn’t innate.  One day we push our friends too hard, tease too viciously, and suddenly they want nothing to do with us.  Actions have consequences.  Braithwaite’s still-fascinating book argues that a healthy criminal justice system helps offenders see themselves through the victim or community’s eyes.  If they feel shame and take responsibility for their actions, they develop conscience and can be reintegrated in their communities.  (I’m hoping to see Braithwaite in July at a Vermont Restorative Justice conference where he’s a keynote speaker.)

My question to him is:  Given shame’s intrinsic lack of appeal, how can we help people see that it’s like a powerful interpersonal drug that can be restoratively tonic or fatally toxic to the human spirit, depending on how it’s used?

Hester Prynne’s big red “A” on her chest is perhaps America’s most famous example of controlling unwanted behavior by public shaming.  Modern research shows indisputably that when parents, teachers or other authorities impose humiliating degrees of shame, the effort to curb bad behavior often backfires.  Overwhelmed by shame, the offender becomes proudly anti-social or defiant, like Hester.  Some seek the solace and company of other bad people — thus the power of gangs.

Conversely, self-esteem advocates talk as though bad feelings in general shouldn’t exist.  Every kid should get a trophy, a do-over, an “A,” no matter what their effort.  But without the adversity of failure, kids can’t be socialized.  They won’t learn to take responsibility or be accountable to their peers, parents and community.  I think the self-esteem movement produced a lot of anti-social behavior.

According to Braithwaite, learning to tolerate and recover from shame starts in the family.  Healthy families love their kids, but frown on unwanted behavior.  A strong foundation of love gives corrective power to the frowning.

But other families dole out punishment and humiliation as though that will somehow produce good behavior.  Braithwaite’s research shows that such families are “associated with later delinquency,” because the parents do all the work of controlling behavior.  If authorities keep humiliating, hurting, coercing, forcing the behavior they want to see, they’ll have to keep at it.  The kid isn’t learning internal controls.

Our super-punitive culture overuses prisons, school suspensions and expulsions, and all manner of kicking one another off the island, so to speak.  With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 40 percent of the world’s prisoners.  That punitive mindset trickles down to schools, to families, and finally to the kids themselves, fostering bullying.

Americans maintain a powerful, deep, abiding faith in punishment.  But shame is like fire, a natural force that can serve either good or evil.  I’ll be curious to see if Professor Braithwaite has advice about how punitive Americans can finally see ourselves and the effects of our harsh practices.  A good, strong prick of chagrin might teach us to handle shame carefully, effectively, productively.  God knows it would be a favor to the 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, though The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Graduating From High School With Great Work Habits

Published by — At this school students take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.

“Aaaaah, someone let the chickens out.”

Melissa Hall, Vice Principal of Greene Charter School in W. Greenwich, RI, has been keeping an eye out the window behind her desk while she and others were answering my questions.  A staff member looks up from her work in the school’s cramped administrative office and offers to deal with it.  Pausing a moment, Hall says, “No… Not yet.  There are kids out there.  Let’s wait to see if they handle it.”

Clearly, the 9-graders responsible for tending to the school’s chickens got distracted and had an oops.  Chickens, compost and a garden are integral to Greene’s focus on the environment.  Each staff member heads up a “crew” of 15 students who meet daily, at least, and together they steward their local eco-system while learning to be a team.

After a bit, Hall turns her back to the window, pleased to report that the escaped poultry were back in their coop.  At no point were the adults particularly fussed about the problem.  They were on it, if need be, but far better to let the kids have a minor panic about their carelessness.  Natural consequences are great teachers.  Adults do kids no favor by jumping up to fix things for them before they have had a chance to make things right themselves.

This is huge.  And, as Head of School Deanna Duncan points out, it takes patience and gobs of attention to cultivate an atmosphere of accepting responsibility.  Many parents and teachers struggle mightily with just getting the kids to do their school work, never mind doing service in the community or turning compost.  But the Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach that Greene has adopted believes that “We are crew, not passengers.”  Adults and students alike are “strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.”  They have jobs and obligations for their mutual benefit.  They’re in it together, and they’re not passive.

But what’s even huger, to my mind, is that Greene and their EL design consultants have not only brought back from the near-dead, but enhanced one of my all-time favorite educational innovations: “advisories.”  Back in the late 1980s, the seminal work Turning Points insisted that public schools “personalize” education.  That horribly impersonal word referred to having small groups of students regularly hang with an adult to ensure that every kid was known well by at least one adult in the building.  Advisories were designed to counter the lack of attention kids were getting at home and in their communities.  So-called “factory-model” schools just replicated kids’ starvation for healthy attention, and in many ways made it worse.  Private schools have always had some form of advisory to make good on their promise to give “personal attention” to the student.

Advisories seem like a well-duh of education.

Sadly, these days, many schools that still schedule advisory time allow teachers to waste the time by letting the kids do their homework, talk or text.  At Greene “Crew” has a curriculum of its own designed to teach students Habits of Work (HOW), including giving them tasks they have to figure with their team.  The Crews stay together for 4 years, so if you’re not getting along, you’d better learn how to.  These behavioral expectations, the HOW, are spelled out in detail.  Students learn both the sort of chore-related reliability and good ‘tude habits that everyone needs to keep a job.  But math and literacy are also woven throughout.  One goal states:  “I can demonstrate basic financial math to promote my understanding of our economic system.”

The over-arching questions of Crew are:

* Who am I?

* How am I doing?

* Who do I want to be?

The habits are graded according to two big categories.  Students can get straight “A”s in their academic subjects, but if they blow their performance on HOW, privileges and choices are reduced.  If students fail either of the HOW grades, they’ll need to do 30 hours of community service over the summer.

So, for example, Jamiel, a senior from Johnston, says, “I had big trouble with the math.  Math is everywhere; it’s part of everyday life.  If you can’t do math, you can’t do much.  So I had to have tutoring over the summer.  But here at Greene, we have this “yet” thing.  I can’t do this YET.  You can’t say ‘I can’t,’ but you can say ‘I can’t do that yet.’  So I work with being in the moment with the work.  I’m growing a positive mindset.”

Crews explore colleges together and help one another with the applications.  They act as a peer-accountability system that helps emerging adults mature into habits of self-control and self-maintenance that are at least as important as academics when starting out post-high-school.

Duncan says, “Our students know what it means to learn the good habits that will help them be successful out in the world.  We intentionally spend as much time focused on climate and culture as on academics.  Students need to take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.  We all have to be responsible to our community.”

Including those wanton chickens.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


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It Takes Guts To Depict A Healthy, Happy Childhood

Published by — This film’s 1950s vision of heaven for children’s play is as relevant today as it was when it was made.

Medieval storytellers and play-masters always faced the huge problem that Evil was so much more fun to portray than Good.  Devils often made their entrance from the back of the audience, delivering sin’s pinches to real bodies as they made their way to the stage.  The characters World, Gluttony and Lechery could flaunt their drunken or sacrilegious naughtiness, even as they were doomed to the fires of hell.  Virtue, Kindness, and Modesty?  Dull, dull and dull.  Tough work competing for attention.

But compete they did, because they had to.  Affirming visions of Good was the point of the stories, after all.  Facing adversity with triumph, in comedy, or noble defeat in tragedy, upheld an ideal of what it looked like when the community had it right.  However hard to achieve, good character was the basis of a good society, and so it had to drive a good story.  Performers had a moral obligation to imagine heaven on earth, because ultimately that was more satisfying to the audiences than cynicism.

These days, Hollywood has lost interest in ordinary, Leave-it-to-Beaver stories about healthy kids and families.  On the news we see children involved in violence, shootings, bullies, and toys that maim.  Frightened parents wrap their kids in bubble wrap, shielding them from life’s greatest lesson:  falling down, going boom, and making sense of what happened.  Actually, if we’d only let kids explore, watching them manage risk — climb a tree, build with tools — can be heart-stoppingly exciting.

So I was delighted to see that the Alliance for Childhood had dug out an old 1957 film that shows just such a bit of a heaven on earth for children.  It looks like a newsreel of the sort that used to play before the feature film.  In it “The National Playing Fields Association” promotes “Adventure Playgrounds,” described as having “originated in postwar Europe, after a playground designer found that children had more fun with the trash and rubble left behind by bombings — inventing their own toys and playing with them — than on the conventional equipment of swings and slides.”

Today adventure playgrounds are all over Europe and Japan.  Many call them “junkyard playgrounds” because they’re full of cast-off wood scraps, wire spools, paints, old pool slides, whatever.

As a 1950s vision of heaven, the children are spotless, even as they dig deeply in the dirt, dive into holes and dam streams.  Boys build while the girls cook, wearing dresses.  A gorgeously-voiced BBC radio announcer enthuses his way through a delightfully prosy script.  The camera lingers on kids having a blast learning that “Work is fun and service is satisfaction.”  The aesthetic is cornball, but every one of his words is just as relevant to today’s children, if not more so.

The narrator focuses on two conditions essential not only to having fun, but to building character.  Again, modern children hear a lot about bad behavior, with few if any images of attractive behavior other than getting good grades and excelling in organized sports.

The first condition is that children need to create worlds that belong just to them.  Everything in these playgrounds is created by the children’s hands.  “Nails and junk bring happiness,” and as the village of little structures develops, “so does character.”  Children choose what to build and do.  They begin or stop as they wish, and if they want to pull off to the side to be alone, that’s okay too.  This isn’t school or home; it’s their world, and no one else’s.

Douglas Rushkoff makes the point that kids are never the drivers when playing video games or other electronics.  They’re passengers in someone else’s software vehicle.  Likewise, organized sports are managed by adults.  But having a world of your own is critical to developing a sense of who you are.  Developing that world with others teaches you who you are in relation to them.

The second essential condition is the “Playworker,” whom we don’t see in the film.  Today European colleges offer 2-year degrees that certify playworkers to work for municipalities in parks, public playgrounds and the streets themselves.  The narrator notes, “Conspicuous by his or her absence, the leader guides, but never organizes; watches over them, but never interferes; is always there, but never in the way.”  The kids aren’t abandoned to create their own world; there’s attention, recourse to help and a potential relationship with a functioning adult.  Talk about an image of Good!  Imagine if U.S. municipalities cared enough about their kids to invest in people to watch over them out in the field.  Kids desperately need to feel safe in their own worlds, but neglect makes the streets dangerous.

As it is, we ignore children’s innate urges to build, dam, make things, climb, invent, interact, and make choices about their own lives.  Better to give kids a bit of land, some junk and to have someone standing watchfully to one side as they do so.  The last line of the movie is:  “And your reward is just this:  the sound of children’s laughter.  No music was ever sweeter.”

Good image.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Puberty, The Elephant in the Middle School Classroom

Published by — Early adolescents are roiling in a whitewater transition, but the ed industry isn’t talking about it.

In 1989, a Carnegie Foundation report dared to boldly go where every man has gone before, but had hoped to forget — puberty.

Turning Points was a rare exploration of those morphing from little kid into budding adult.  Historically, middle-school kids held little interest for researchers.  And lo, over time, Turning Points (TP) also faded from view.  No new seminal work replaced it.  No innovative discussion eclipsed TP’s passionate efforts to focus attention on these kids.  No, the ed industry has reverted to operating as though gawky, spacey, changing adolescents are midway on some unbroken continuum.

Of course, everyone knows they’re roiling in a whitewater transition, letting go of childhood and grabbing for adult independence.  They’re betwixt and between.  But we’re not talking about it.

Turning Points begged educators to face the uncomfortable realities of pubescents, between 10 and 15 years old.  They might be bellowing their objections to being “treated like babies,” while secretly playing with old toys.  Most famously, they’re moody, unpredictable and easily distracted by the minutia of social clues.  He looked at me wrong.  She doesn’t like me anymore.  Am I wearing something dorky? 

Their problems are not confined to the onset of sexuality, a mind-blow of its own.  The brain itself changes.  TP says, “Cognitive growth is equally dramatic for many youth, bringing the new capacity to think in more abstract and complex ways than they could as children.  Increased sense of self and enhanced capacity for intimate relationships can also emerge in early adolescence.”

Since 1989, scientists have determined that the brain’s “executive function,” the part making good choices, doesn’t fully mature until about age 25, long after this “middle” period.  Even so, “young people enter a society that at once denounces and glorifies sexual promiscuity and the use of illicit drugs.  They live in urban neighborhoods and even in some rural towns where the stability of close-knit relationships is rare, where the sense of community that shapes their identity has eroded.”

Never mind that the educational requirements of the workforce have changed so radically, poor educations predict dismal economic prospects.

But, “all too often the guidance they needed as children and need no less as adolescents is withdrawn.  Freed from the dependency of childhood, but not yet able to find their own path to adulthood, many young people feel a desperate sense of isolation.  Surrounded only by their equally confused peers, too many make poor decisions with harmful or lethal consequences.”

In other worlds, human puberty is a huge big deal.  We can be there for them and help out.  Or we can stick our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, and sing loudly.

Turning Points strongly recommends “personalization,” a horribly impersonal word that means nurturing kids’ relationships with adults.  TP launched the practice of “advisories,” whereby each school professional takes, say, an hour a week to get to know 12 -15 students personally.  The idea was to avoid replicating fragmented homes and communities with impersonal school experiences.  Sadly, many teachers felt that they already “knew” their students and that the time spent discussing kids’ hopes, dreams, and fears was “a waste.”

Turning Points was influential during the 1990s.  Philanthropic organizations helped systems adopt its “middle-school model.”  Some schools became more pleasant places to be and learn.  For those of us who cared about these kids, it was a hopeful time.

Ironically, the 1990s was also when educational technology exploded.  Suddenly, researchers could collect and crunch data in volumes never previously imagined.  Excited geeks developed powerful diagnostic tools for schools, systems, and even individual kids.  The data collected for Turning Points was intended to monitor and perfect the practices with solid research — a proper use of data.

However.  Congress’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law turned educational technology into a weapon of Mass Criticism.  Researchers were sent like hunting dogs to find data proving educational failure of all kinds.  Cheating scandals erupted nationally because school personnel wanted to avoid getting beaten up by test-score data.  I’m all for assessments and data.  But these days nearly everyone admits that our country’s testing mania is full-on toxic to kids, teachers and education.  No one has any idea how to stop, slow, or better deploy this speeding data train.

So here we are, arguing with one other about teacher evaluations, Common Core, and massive new assessment and curriculum initiatives.  The plan is to put third-graders in front of computers to test the bejesus out of them.

All schools should be held accountable, whatever that means.  But Big Accountability buried Turning Points.  Empathetic values do not jive with heavy breathing about tests.

So once again, my darling, awkward, pimply, smelly, goofy middle schoolers get totally left behind.  “Puberty is one of the most far-reaching biological upheavals in the life span.”  But sorry, kids, we can’t help you with that.  You’re on your own.  Good luck with that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Meet the Class of 2013 Through Child Trends’ Lens

Published by — If the 3 million-plus grads were 100 kids, here’s what their backgrounds would be:

The mortarboards have been tossed. The “Congratulations Grad” balloons have withered. Grandma’s gift check has been cashed — and likely spent. In short, the high-school class of 2013 is launched into official adulthood.

So, who are they?

Child Trends, a respected research group, crunched massive national data sets to paint us a portrait of these grads. To make the data easily understandable, they boiled it down to a summary class of 100 grads. (You can also think in terms of percents. For example, 11 of the 100 kids or 11 percent of the sampled grads have asthma.) The point of this statistical exercise is to help us wrap our heads around who’s coming out of the nation’s high schools these days.

Every newly-minted adult has a lot to figure out. But quite apart from the super-yucky job market, the class of 2013 seems to be facing a ton of adversity. See for yourself.

Since there’s so much data, I’ve curated a collection, “curating” being the useful new buzzword for making personal selections.

If the 3 million-plus grads were 100 kids, their backgrounds would be:

54 white; 23 Latino; 15 African American, and 8 are something else.

22 are living in poverty; 10 in deep poverty

The goodish news:

68 will go on to a college or university.

53 have parents who say their neighborhood is “always safe.”

51 used no alcohol, cigarettes, or illicit drugs during the past 30 days.

38 have a reading achievement-test score of “proficient or above.”

35 volunteered in the past year.

35 eat meals together with their families 6 or 7 days a week.

26 have a mathematics achievement-test score of “proficient or above.”

17 are employed.


71 have experienced physical assault.

27 were in a physical fight last year.

28 rode in a car during the past year with a driver who had been drinking.

16 carried a weapon in the past year.

3 were victims of violent crime in the past year.

Sex ‘n drugs:

64 have had sexual intercourse; 48 are sexually active.

27 used a condom and 12 were on birth control pills the last time they had sex.

28 have been victimized sexually; 10 report they’ve been raped.

23 smoked marijuana in the past 30 days; 7 smoke marijuana every day, or nearly every day.

21 had a sexually transmitted infection in the past year.

8 used an illicit drug other than marijuana in the past 30 days.

Of the females, 3 or 4 have been, or are, pregnant. One has had an abortion.

Abuse and Neglect:

32 have experienced some form of child maltreatment.

1 or two are in foster care.


34 are overweight. and of these 18 are obese.

29 felt “sad and hopeless” continuously for at least two weeks during the past year.

24 were binge-drinking in the past two weeks.

18 have special health care needs.

17 are current cigarette smokers.

14 thought seriously about attempting suicide in the past year; 6 went through with the attempt; and 2 required medical attention afterward.

11 have asthma.

8 have unmet dental needs.

4 have an eating disorder where they’ve vomited or taken laxatives to lose weight.

2 have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

1 used steroids in the past year.

Really? To my mind, Child Trends has laid bare that the richest country in the world just doesn’t bother to take very good care of the kids, or at least a huge number of kids. Far too many are depressed and fat. Almost half have used alcohol, drugs or smoked cigarettes in the last 30 days. More than 1 in 5 was treated for a sexually-transmitted disease last year? Sheesh.

That’s an awful lot of baggage for a kid to carry into the future. You would think we could do at least a somewhat better job of sending young people off to solo as adults.

What I find most painful about the continued sad state of America’s kids — no, not the marvelously well-kept third to a half, but the rest of them — is that they’re someone else’s problem. Blame abounds; responsibility does not. Even if you really do believe that these messed-up kids are the parents’ fault, or the schools’ fault, they are still members of our community and our workforce, now and for the foreseeable future.

Hopefully Child Trends will do this exercise every year to hold us — and I mean all of us — accountable for making things better for kids as a whole.

You bet I’m a drag at social events. I think and talk a lot about how we’re not adequately loving, disciplining and caring for the kids. Such neglect is expensive in the long run in so many respects. It’s at all times inexcusable. Child Trends totally kicked up my obsession with this topic. Shame on us.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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The Importance of Having a Father

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Cool-headed, rational Rob DeBlois, Director of the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Project (UCAP), once had to get this haunting story off his mind:

A UCAP social-studies teacher gave students a crime scenario, and divided them into groups to determine who was guilty and why.  Students get into UCAP’s alternative program if they should be in middle-school, but are at least 2 grade levels below their peers.  They’re the sort of disaffected kids that regular schools don’t want.

The scenario, if memory serves, was this:  A 16-year old walks into a convenience store intending to hold it up for some cash.  His weapon is a toy gun in his pocket and a street-tough manner.  He’d dropped out of school because his struggles with reading were never fully addressed (unlike those of UCAP students).  His mom is around, but consumed by drugs.  Dad never was in the picture.  The scenario included details about the failures of Child Protective Services and other public agencies.  So the offender’s prospects were super dim even before he made his stupid choice.  Since the store itself is in a tough part of town, the owner has a security system — cameras and the like — and a real gun.  The robbery goes bad.  The owner kills the kid.

Essential question:  Whose fault is this and why?

The groups broke up, deliberated, and drafted arguments.  There are lots of possible culprits, including the kid himself, of course.  But when the groups reconvened, each had the same answer:  The cause of the crime was the kid’s father.

The father?!  Huh?  He wasn’t even in the picture.  But that’s exactly what made the kids so angry.  Where was he?  Their teacher probed them, but the students were adamant that the crime never would have happened if the kid’s father had been in his life.  What if he were a bad father?  Doesn’t matter.  He should have been there.

Statistically, they’re right.  Their collective hunger for dads led them to the exactly same conclusion researchers had found.  It was that hunger that so impressed the teacher, DeBlois, and finally me.

According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, U.S. Census Bureau data shows that over 24 million children live apart from their biological fathers. Their site elaborates, “That is 1 out of every 3 (33%) children in America. Nearly 2 in 3 (64%) African American children live in father-absent homes. One in three (34%) Hispanic children, and 1 in 4 (25%) white children live in father-absent homes.

“In 1960, only 11% of children lived in father-absent homes.”

The UCAP kids were dead on the money.  “Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents to:

Be poor

Use drugs

Experience educational problems

Experience health problems

Experience emotional problems

Experience behavioral problems

Be victims of child abuse

Engage in criminal behavior”

So, happy Fathers Day to you lucky ones who have dads well-installed in your lives, and to the fathers who’ve stuck by their kids through thick and thin — and been allowed to.  Often Family Courts have helped divorced and estranged mothers use the law to get the dads to pay support, if they can, but stay out of Mom’s way, thereby pushing fathers out of kids’ lives.  Family Courts reflect society’s disdain for estranged fathers.

Seemingly each Fathers Day I focus on some bit of the mountain of research pleading to elevate the importance of fathers.  Last year I interviewed a Child Protective Services worker who’d had a change of heart towards “dead beat” dads, once he’d learned that most were “dead broke” dads.

The year before was a story about “Dads Making a Difference,” where older male mentors help estranged dads parent their kids better.  Prior to that, I summarized an impassioned social-work researcher’s lecture on the specific value fathers bring to children’s lives.

Kids need dads.  While social issues do not lend themselves to right answers, there are, I would argue, ideals.  Ideals are images of what it looks like when we’ve got it right.  Wildly-imperfect humans can’t often meet high ideals, so there’s no reason to be nasty to those who don’t.  Marriages dissolve (some too easily); parents get sick, disabled or die; unprepared teens get pregnant, and sometimes, to quote the very imperfect Woody Allen, “the heart wants what it wants.”  Families fragment or were never properly formed.

But those realities are not ideal.  Kids would like us to affirm that traditional families, in the context of extended relatives and larger community, are good things.  Because by all statistical accounts, they are.

Yes, for heaven’s sake, fatherless children can do fine.  And a great step-father, if he is great, can fill the void.  Other family members can step in; strong communities can wrap around a kid or family and supplement where needed.  All sorts of arrangements can be ideal under the circumstances.

But we can’t lose sight of the ideal.  When we do, we get lazy about working to find those best-possible solutions and start convincing ourselves that having no one for a father is okay.

In every kid’s head and heart is a mom AND a dad.  Be active about making sure every kid gets one.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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A ‘Forest Kindergarten’ Grows Great Kids

Published by — These schools give kids a totally fun way to gain autonomy, confidence  and resilience

When people say “mental health,” what they usually mean is mental illness.  Laudably, mental health advocates support people with mental illness, but that doesn’t help us imagine what it looks like when we’ve got mental health right.

So, as we come to the end of May is Mental Health month, let’s enjoy a lovely, hopeful image of cultivating kids’ robust mental health.  Travel with me to a little town outside of Zurich, Switzerland.  There, a pre-school reliably grows healthy, resilient, confident, self-reliant problem-solvers.  Our transport is a documentary film, School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten.

I found the 6-minute trailer so intriguing that I bought the movie.  It has jaw-dropping moments of little kids, between 4 and 7, cutting wood with knives.  They make fires and roam a forest where adults aren’t always in sight.  They swing to giddy heights on long ropes, and when one girl’s boot gets caught in branches at the top of her swing, a boy gracefully shinnies up the tree to get it.  Using hammers and saws, kids carve a track out of a hillside so a ball can race through a root tunnel and on through obstacles to a thrilling, shriek-worthy finish.  They play-fight with sticks.

I was a fairly free-range mom, but found myself totally challenged by 4-year-olds handling sharp Swiss Army knives.

“Outdoor” or “forest” kindergartens are a growing movement in Japan and many European countries.  Formal schooling in these countries doesn’t start age 7, largely because pushing academics too early turns kids off from school.  So these countries group 4-7 year olds into true children’s gardens where teachers civilize kids’ wonderful animal instincts with stories, songs, socializing activities, and self-directed play.

The movie shows us little mammals spending all day outdoors, moving, exploring, interacting.  They learn what evolution programmed them to learn:  the properties of their immediate world and the necessity of getting along with others, peers and adults.

Swiss parents can keep their pre-school kids at home or send to either “indoor” or “outdoor” K.  These are PUBLIC schools.

Indoor kindergartens also emphasize play and socialization skills, but are housed in a regular building with a play yard or some bit of nature nearby.  Outdoor kindergartens are only outdoors, rain, shine or snow.  The School’s Out “facility”, and the only protection from the elements, is a big tarp covering the circle of logs where the class gathers for songs, games, stories and foul-weather lunch.  The thinking is that there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.  Nature challenges kids to become problem-solvers.  If you’re cold, move vigorously or build a fire.  Figure it out.

The school is not fairyland perfect.  A parent talks about her daughter cutting herself badly with a knife during the first few days.  Mom and child were upset, but it never happened again.  Mom proudly reports that her child’s an expert now.  Lesson learned.  Experience hones kids’ judgment.  Actually, forest kindergartens have impressively low injury rates.

The kids don’t seem to care about the camera filming them, but a teacher is clearly annoyed at being recorded as she struggles with a distressed boy whose ears got super-cold.  She works to comfort him, offering warm drinks and a sandwich, but gives up after a solid try.  We’re told it’s an especially frigid winter.  Other kids are barreling down snowy slopes on plastic saucers, screaming with laughter and tumbling over one another.  Later, the teacher tries again to work with the fusser.  Perhaps he’s been watching his friends, because while still pouting, he lets her get his hat and mittens on.  Finally, we see him careening down the hill, delighted, recovered.

Many parents admit they were quite nervous about the school’s challenges — the safety risks, the weather.  But now they’re beyond pleased.  At length one British mom describes her initial fears.  But her daughter had been a princess, wanting clothes, material things, and entertainment.  Now the girl shows us her collection of sticks and pine cones, toys vibrantly alive to her because she determines what they are, not the manufacturer.  Mom marvels at her daughter’s confidence, and thanks her lucky stars that they’re not living in the UK where her child would be stuck indoors and facing her first set of state exams.

One African mom spent a day at the schools and came away appalled at what she saw.  She passed on sending her kid there.  Her choice.

In contrast, another set of parents allowed their older daughter to chose an indoor K, which they regret.  Their younger son bloomed socially during his forest experience, while the now-adolescent girl only wants to be inside, curled up by herself.  She flashes the camera a poisonous look of triumph, as if to say, Cooperation is for chumps. 

A pediatrician states flatly that kids who went to outdoor K never come to him for an ADHD diagnosis.  Never.  They get sick a lot less too.  Education officials are sold.  And parents increasingly choose forest kindergartens because the kids turn out so great.

These kids will not be obese.  They love nature.  Their terrific social skills will reduce depression.  They are not frightened by statistically non-existent stranger danger.

The Swiss will not be paying for their preventable mental illnesses.

But to give such experiences to American kids, we will have to get over our obsessions with safety, liability and getting every kid into Harvard.  Which we should do anyway.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and 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 or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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