Posts Tagged trauma-sensitive schools

Always Model Kindness, Especially to Children

Published by — The kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask good questions.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The trim, tall elementary teacher, whom we’ll call Ms. Larch, paused before answering the question that had been posed to everyone in the circle.  Larch was among a group of teachers from all levels in a Restorative Practices (RP) training.  RP, in super brief, are interpersonal techniques that promote healing and connecting instead of disciplining by hurtful punishment.  The question at hand was: Since our work together last week, what have you been thinking about Restorative Practices?  Just a thought, a take-away, something you’ve noticed.

The mood of the group was bubbly.  Taking turns, answers came quickly – and then the pace came to a halt with Larch.  After a deep breath, she said,  “I noticed the hallways.”  The group fell silent, waiting to find out what on earth she meant.

A 14-year veteran, Larch has mainly taught 4th grade.  After working in a suburban school, she chose to take a position in a diverse, more challenged school.  She’d been there nine years now and was no stranger to their bustling hallways.  But in the prior week, for the first time, she found herself standing still and listening.  Through the new RP lens, the hallway noise had a harsh, barky quality, driven by edgy adult voices.  The kids paid little attention to the adults, which only increased the volume of the bark.  Suddenly the hallways seemed hard on the kids.  How does one person change such a thing?

During my many years of writing about education, I’ve observed hundreds of schools, though not hers.  I’ve been in many such hallways, flowing with negative, military-style commands:  “Don’t run.”  “Be quiet.”  “Stop it!”  I get that teachers juggle many pressures and get frazzled.  And harsh hallways are by no means exclusive to low-income public schools.  Communities, of every stripe, might insist on zero-tolerance orderliness.  In the name of order, all sorts of kids get steeped in adult anger, frustration and impatience.

But does command-and-control discipline teach social skills?

A recent Atlantic Magazine piece, Teaching Traumatized Kids, focused on Lincoln High in Washington state, an alternative school designed to help kids whose troubled behavior was known to be driven by trauma.  But why need a diagnosis?  Every school should just assume the presence of trauma, among kids and adults alike, and be prepared to prevent and respond well to misbehavior triggered by trauma.  Interestingly, every single one of Lincoln’s techniques were what we’d call Restorative Practices.  They call them “kindness,” which is fine by me.  A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.  I’m totally down with kindness.

Restorative Practices promote good relationships and strong, supportive communities.  They prevent and de-escalate conflict.  Lincoln’s “teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special ‘quiet room.’ Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.”

Yes, ask questions.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the kindest response to unwanted behavior is to ask a whole bunch of good questions.  Not “Whadya do that for?”  But something like:  “You seem off.  What’s up today?”  And even that’s not completely kind unless delivered in a low register of your voice, calmly and with good eye contact.  Be careful not to sound like you already know the answer.  No, kind questions don’t defuse tension every time.  But they give everyone, adult or kid, traumatized or merely upset, the chance to recover by thinking through what’s going on with them and whatever upset them.  Good questions can provide gentleness.

Years ago I visited an urban elementary school that used music for their hallway transitions.  When the public address system played soothing, upbeat classical music — instead of those maddening bells — kids finished up and moved on to lunch, art class or wherever.  The music set a tone.  The teachers, while watchful, trusted the kids to be self-regulated.  The hallway bustled, but sweetly.

Kids take their cue from the adults. 

Children of all ages learn far more from adult modeling than they do from formal instruction.  Too often we forget that children are organic, living beings.  They need human forms of sunlight, shade, nourishing soil and proper amounts of water.  A harsh hallway is not a good medium to grow thriving, self-regulating kids.

We could actually sooth our fearful, angry culture if each of us were more mindful of being kind.  Kindness is not easy.  It takes thought and a commitment to watching how we treat each other.  Kids who have a positive experience in school hallways, not to mention school itself, will grow and learn differently than those who do not.

 (Photo: Pixabay, 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 or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

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What If South Carolina’s Body-Slammed Teen Had Been Treated Restoratively?

Published by — There may be no good excuse for disrupting class, but a punitive response can just exacerbate the problem.


Restorative practices are simple tools for handling conflict in ways that maximize the possibility of a happy ending.  The practices are habits of the mind and heart.  So let’s revisit last October’s nasty incident at Spring Valley High with an eye on how things might have gone differently if the school had been Restorative.

Likely you remember the cellphone videos that went viral, showing a math class where a teenage girl’s non-compliance triggered a violent assault by a School Resource Officer (SRO).  The attack on her would have been appalling under any circumstances, but to boot, the uniformed police officer was white and the girl was black.

The girl’s classmates reported that she had pulled out her cellphone, a bane of many schools’ existence these days.  Adolescents are by nature easily distracted, but this generation has been raised in part by electronic baby sitters, so their phones are not just interesting, but comforting.  Was the girl unprepared or feeling stupid in this algebra class?  We don’t know.  We know she was distracted and distracting.

The 16-year veteran teacher asked her to put it away.  She refused.  He asked her to go to the “discipline office.”  She refused again, so he got the SRO.  The videos show her clinging to the chair in defiance of the officer.  But he totally lost his stuff.  After slamming her to the ground, he threw her out the door.  He was fired soon after.  The reports mostly focus on him.

Restorative schools are trauma-informed.

Among the few facts revealed about the girl was that she was in foster care.  A state’s Child Protective Services remove kids from their homes when the parents are abusive, seriously neglectful, substance abusers, radically incompetent, or dead.  So foster-care kids have been traumatized, if only by being removed.  They have precious little control over their lives.  The girl asserted what power she had.  Neither the cop nor the teacher necessarily knew the girl’s circumstances, nor do most school staff need to know kids’ personal business.  But “trauma-informed” means that adults are fully aware that such circumstances are always possible – with any kid.

In other words, when confronting nasty behavior, the safe assumption is that it could be signaling the presence of trauma.  If so, the trauma can be ignited by yelling, humiliating, or generally getting into a head-butt with someone unwilling to comply with orders.  When trauma overwhelms a person, their brain shuts off its language center and executive function, leaving the body and primitive parts of the brain to defend itself with primitive methods.  They can not use their words appropriately.  So getting into a power struggle with a traumatized kid risks triggering out-of-control behavior.  Better to tread lightly and assume that the kid may not be capable of responding appropriately.

Ask three caring, de-escalating questions first.

Mind you, nothing excuses a student for disrupting a class.  The rest of the class deserves to learn.  But punitive techniques like kicking the kid out often exacerbate the problem.

Restorative 101 would recommend speaking to a misbehaving kid, like the girl with the phone, in a calm, lowered voice — always a good de-escalating tactic.  And instead of making commands or statements, ask a couple of questions in a caring, sincere, non-sarcastic tone.  Questions such as:

“Are you expecting an important call?”  This calls the kid out for her behavior.  Some people object that such call-outs are themselves embarrassing.  But the kid clearly needs help seeing that what she’s doing has a negative effect on the classroom community.  She’s made her behavior their business.  No reason to be mean, but does she understand what the big picture looks like?  A tiny prick of shame is okay, especially if it helps her put her phone in her pocket.

“Is there something going on with you today that’s distracting you?  If so, I’ve got a minute after class to talk.”  Most kids are going to say no whatever the circumstances.  But if the teacher is available after class, perhaps with one more kind question, at least the kid might feel cared about.  Maybe she’ll say something pertinent.

Or:  “Can the phone wait?  This is algebra and we all need to concentrate.”

The SRO might have been entirely unnecessary.

Granted, teachers don’t feel they have time to ask such questions.  Some feel a disruptive kid doesn’t deserve helpful attention.  But a moment of caring might have made a huge difference to our foster-care teen.  And an argument that leads to a kick-out disrupts the class hugely.  A few quick questions can make it clear whether the kid can settle into class or truly needs to be elsewhere.

The point is that a gentle, trauma-informed approach can de-escalate and prevent conflicts.  Restorative practices can’t guarantee redeemed behavior.  But they do create the conditions that ease trouble instead of throwing gas on what might well be a smoldering ember.  The girl was apparently quiet, if breaking the rules.  She deserved to be treated restoratively.  As do they all.


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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Teachers Must Be Mindful of Traumatized Children

Published by — Misbehavior may seem like a choice, like willful defiance.  But sometimes it’s a cry for help.


Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school.  It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends.  The faculty are still in shorts and sandals.  While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.

Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.”  Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others.  The list was long.  “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it.  But in truth, it was just a list.  Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.

But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.

Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording.  Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes.  Or take my word for it:

A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother.  She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation.  Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.”  You can hear the fight in the background.  Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.

The operator is super calm and all business.  Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally.  She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives.  Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help.  The operator asks if the front door is unlocked.  “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is.  So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access.  Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.

But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door.  But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister.  Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.”  She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down.  The operator calls after her — “Lisa!”  The line goes dead.  The operator swears.

Oy.  We’re all shaken.  The point is, as Simpson says gently:

“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”

Okay.  Point taken.  But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset.  They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience.  Empathetically, she honors their experience.  Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate.  Kids have a far harder time.  And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”

So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn.  The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning.  Multiplication tables?  The life cycle of rivers?  Greek myths?  Forget it.  The kid can’t think.

So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.”  They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum.  Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day.  Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis.  Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?

Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.

Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids.  Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is.  But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma.  Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan.  Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.

The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate.  But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids.  You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out.  It’s not about you.”

That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you.  And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools.  Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.


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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5 Smart Ideas for Reducing the Effects of Kids’ Trauma

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


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

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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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Put Kids’ Mental Health at the Center of Education

Published by — Kids’ mental health is at least as important as their physical health.

For me, it’s all about mental health.  And by “it,” I mean improving education, and a thousand other aspects of kids’ lives.

What does a kid learn with?  Well, that would be her brain.  And if you’re thinking that such a statement is a total “well-duh,” why aren’t we talking a lot about kids’ brains, since that’s where their mental health resides?

Consider:  Kids (or adults for that matter) who are asthmatic, obese or constipated don’t shine on the local sports team or dance floor.  Their conditions undermine their performance of common physical feats.  Furthermore, social handicaps brought on by poor physical health make them feel emotionally crummy.  They’re short of breath, picked last for teams and teased.  Many act out or search for escape.

But somehow we expect that kids (or adults for that matter) who are worried, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, sad or in a jealous rage to meet high performance standards.  If they don’t, they’re vulnerable to disapproval.  After a while, vicious cycles of feeling crummy develop, which is to say, poor mental health.

One problem is that when people refer to “mental health,” they usually mean mental illness.  The discussion about mental health now raging in the press centers around Adam Lanza, whose massacre of 27 people and himself clearly indicates mental illness in excelsis.  “Mental health” is associated with extreme illness, which still carries stigma, alas.  But no wonder no one wants to get caught asking questions about their own mental health.

For a clear, positive definition, the Search Institute offers a set of characteristics they call the 40 “developmental assets.”  Interestingly, most researchers tend to call mental health something else; you’ll also encounter “resilience” and “social-and-emotional skill.”

But even more simply, for our purposes today, the mentally healthy are those people who feel able to identify their own needs and issues, and can negotiate for themselves civilly, within the context of a community.  Kids and adults alike must learn to take responsibility for their daily moods, feelings and the nasty messages they allow their heads to tell them.  (Like:  “I’m too weird to have friends.”)  Those who can’t manage feelings on their own need to talk to a friend, a mom, a professional.

But talking takes time.  And to professionals, time is money.

When kids aren’t using pro-social ways to meet their needs, doctors often prescribe psychoactive drugs to manage the unwanted behavior.  While I generally hate the impulse to pass laws to legislate every little thing, giving a kid psychoactive drugs without talk therapy really should be illegal.  Drugs can’t get to the bottom of a problem or teach a kid pro-social skills.  Drugs can be hugely helpful by supporting people in the throes of therapy, unpacking painful experiences.  But too often drugs are just excuses to avoid the harder issue of helping kids form the strong, caring relationships that are an everyday safety net.

I am no paragon of mental health.  On my desk is a list of people to call when I feel overwhelmed, which the voice in my head calls “crazy” or “stupid.”  Sometimes I pick up the list and keep calling until someone has a minute to hear my story and give perspective.  I reciprocate, of course.  But I don’t have time to be lost in such mild forms of mental illness, like a mood cold, anger constipation, or a paranoid flu.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups also have lists and strongly encourage their members to call their sponsor or someone else, rather than act out, or take up drinking again.  Talk.  Make connection.  Get perspective.  Learn to listen well.

Sad fact:  21.4 percent of our youth 13-18 have a “severe mental disorder.”  That’s a huge portion of our teenagers.  The way we treat our kids is adversely affecting their mental health.

Every kid in the world deserves to have at least one person in their lives who gives them the message:  “I’m right here.  I’ve got your back.  Your interests are mine, and whatever goes wrong, we’ll work it out together.  No, you may not indulge yourself in anti-social behavior; you will learn to be civilized.  I will help you.  You’re not alone.  I am interested in your issues.  I care.”

But if you think such a message is normally pumped into kids’ lives nowadays, you’re crazy.

So my wish for the new years is that we move mental health to the center of our concerns for kids.  Leaving it at the fringes is doing none of us any favors, but least of all the young people we’re supposed to protect.  Even if it’s only the sniffles, we attend to illness.  Why put up with so little attention to feelings?

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, Providence, RI 02903.

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