Archive for the ‘Youth At Risk’ Category

Bullying is big news. With kids cutting and killing themselves, the media, legislatures, and school systems are just now waking up to an epidemic that has been thriving under their noses for way too long.

We are searching for answers. Whose fault is it? The bully’s? The teacher? The Principal? The parent?

The truth is, we are missing the boat about what causes bullying and why it exists in the first place.

Bullying, at its core, is about relationships. The whole system promotes and allows bullying. Kids increasingly do not know how to be in relationship with each other so they resort to surviving the best they know how.

We don’t teach a “how to get along in the world” class. Kids must figure out the complexity of relationship on their own, making interpersonal interaction a Darwinian experience. Many think back to their childhood and view survival of the fittest as a positive way to learn about life. But the truth is, school is increasingly a Lord of the Flies existence, where teachers opt out of being in relationship with their students.

This leaves kids to flounder right before their eyes.

Bullying is the disintegration of intimate, caring relationships in a society gone digital. Bullying is not just a kid-on-kid phenomenon.

And here is the surprising part. IT EXISTS EVERYWHERE, especially in school between teacher and student.

Teresa is a 15-year-old who is chronically overwhelmed by the expectations of her teachers and her mother. An impatient mother demanding excellence coupled with teachers who never stop giving homework, grading and moving on to the next chapter has Teresa living in a constant state of anxiety and fear.

She has panic attacks at night thinking about her failure and inadequacy. Teresa attempted to talk to her teachers but mostly they ignore her, dismissing her as someone who has given up. Though clearly emotionally drowning in full view of everyone, no adult “bystanders” have stepped in to help Teresa.

Reaching her breaking point, she stabbed herself in the neck – all in an effort to stop the intense and unbearable feeling of rejection and inadequacy.

What makes this a case of bullying is how teachers caused Teresa’s fear and anxiety without attending to her obvious suffering. There is no relationship of caring between Teresa and her teachers. They were able to walk away (like any bully) and not take responsibility for their actions.

Too many teachers bully students to get their work done instead of being in relationship with them. Bullying bypasses the intimacy and work of real relationship. It is more than being rude or insensitive; it’s emotional harming of another in exchange for power, prestige, control, dominance or playing out unresolved issues on others.

Most kids, when asked about school, will answer that it is an impossible situation. They have no rights or privileges and absolutely no voice. Too often parents join with teachers to push, prod, threaten, humiliate, ridicule, judge, grade, embarrass, all in an effort to get kids to good student status, to get them to tow the line.

But in the end, what will work and what will always work is being in caring and respectful relationships. Everyone wins in a healthy relationship. It is harder and needs to be taught. But it is the only way to stop bullying.


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New York Times

More than 150 years ago, Charles Dickens published “Hard Times,” a novel centered around the students of an English schoolmaster named Thomas Gradgrind, who had no use for play or any sort of imaginative pursuit. For Gradgrind, if something did not demonstrably add to the productive capacity of the nation and could not be justified with facts and statistics, it had no place in a child’s education.

Dickens invented Gradgrind (and introduced him in a chapter entitled “Murdering the Innocents”) to dramatize what he saw as the soullessness of utilitarianism, a school of thought prevalent in England during the Industrial Revolution that emphasized rational pursuits and quantitative measures over all else.

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Tyler is five years old. He is going to school for the first time. In school, he will learn to read and write. He will meet other boys and girls who he will play with. He will make friends and laugh and get mad and sad. He likes painting and playing tag during recess. He likes that his name is painted in red and blue by his own cubby. Everyday, the teacher reads stories and he likes that also. The teacher wants him to sit and write letters and numbers and color in between the lines. She wants him to be quiet during quiet time and to have an “inside voice” all the time. Tyler is confused about all the rules and cries at school. The teacher has a “nice voice,” but she also has a “mean voice.” Tyler is afraid of the “mean voice.” Tyler feels sad more and more, especially when the “mean voice” is there too much. When the teacher asks him why he is sad, he looks down at his basketball shoelaces his dad double-ties in the morning and more tears come out. He wants to go home and play with his own stuff and he tells the teacher this. She tells him that he can go home when school is over and that’s not until after afternoon snack. How long is that he asks? That is four more hours, she said in her nice voice. When Tyler looks up he sees another little boy, the one with red hair, doing something he wants to do. He tells the teacher he’s not sad anymore and he runs to his friend. The teacher calls out “Walk Tyler.”

Penelope is eight years old. She is an old hand at school. Third grade. She knows what’s expected of her and for the most part, she is pretty good at school. She kind of likes it, especially when she gets good grades. Grades are new to her and Penelope feels nervous in her stomach when Miranda gets a better grade than she does on spelling. Penelope wishes the other children in her classroom were better behaved, especially the boys who are always talking and getting into trouble. She makes sure she doesn’t do what they are doing and tells the teacher when someone is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. This way the teacher knows she is a good girl and that’s important. Penelope wants to do everything right but the other girls don’t like her as much. She’s not sure why. But she has one friend, Rose, who is really quiet. They gave each other friendship necklaces this year and spend every recess playing House by the trees next to the blacktop. The other girls usually jump rope or play Chase but Penelope doesn’t like doing that. She wants them to come to her and play her games, but they never do, except Rose, so that makes Rose her best friend. Raji wants to be her friend too but she is too talkie. Raji also gets into trouble for talking in class and Penelope has to sit next to her, which she hates so she ignores her. Sometimes Penelope talks to Raji and sometimes they are friends, maybe for a day, but then they’re not because Raji is annoying. Nobody likes her.

Zach is 10 years old. He always sits in the back of the class at his own desk. He doesn’t mind so much. He gets to look out the window and think about video games and recess. Zach is not doing so well in school but all the boys like him because he is brave and says things out loud to the teacher which makes everyone laugh. Zach knows he’s a cool kid. He’s good at sports but his teacher doesn’t like him so much, he thinks. That’s why he’s in the back. His parents get mad at him because the teacher writes them notes telling them when he does something wrong, which is like a couple times a week. The teacher doesn’t talk to Zach about “doing better” very much anymore maybe because he knows Zach’s parents get mad at him instead, which they do, a lot. The teacher just tries to ignore him, that’s why he’s in the back. It’s like he’s not in the class at all. This is so the teacher can teach and he doesn’t have to deal with Zach. Zach knows if he can keep his mouth shut, then his teacher would like him but he can’t because then the other kids wouldn’t think he was funny anymore. His parents yell and scream and take away stuff. They say, “you’re embarrassing us” and stuff like that. But he can’t help it. He tells them over and over that school is sooo boring and the teacher doesn’t like him. They don’t care whether the teacher likes him or not and it doesn’t matter if schools boring. Do the work, they say over and over, or else you can’t play baseball, you can’t play basketball, you can’t, you can’t. Who cares if it’s boring? Zach cares. He’s the one who has to go to school. Not them. They don’t care what he has to say. They want him to do better NOW – or else. No discussion. So Zach does try again. He doesn’t want his parents to be mad and disappointed. But no one notices that he’s trying. Actually they seem to notice only when he doesn’t try. They have radar eyes for the not trying and even when he is trying, they think he’s not trying. So what’s the point of even trying? So looking out the window is fun and it doesn’t get the teacher mad.

Telia is 12 years old. She is a little overweight and thinks about her body a lot. She asks her Mom if she can get her ears pierced and wear a little make-up. He mom says alright. Telia likes Brandon who sits in front of her in Science. He has dirty blond curly hair and is tall for a 7th grader which makes him like an 8th grader. Brandon doesn’t know that Telia likes him and besides he likes Julia, everyone knows that. Telia is nervous because all the girls are starting to do things with boys, to get their attention. LIke at Samatha’s 12th birthday party, almost every girl went in the closet, one at a time, to kiss Jake or Mike. Telia wouldn’t do it. She likes Brandon and thinks Jake and Mike are sleazy. There is a lot of homework and the teachers are always frustrated with the class because there is too much “side talking” and “note passing.” There is so much drama now and Telia is unsure about everything. Her body is changing and she is having these new feelings about boys and her mind seems to be different also. It’s like she has two brains, like she is always having a conversation in her head. Is something wrong with her, she worries? Is she crazy? She doesn’t tell anyone she has crazy thoughts and tries to push them away, which only makes them stronger. Telia’s mom is worried about her and asks if she would like to talk to the school counselor. Telia says no because all the other kids would find out and then everything would be worse. Besides, there’s another birthday party coming up and maybe this time Telia will be brave enough to go in the closet.

Joshua is 14. He is the youngest of four kids and has seen it all. He knows what ‘s up and is very relaxed about school and girls and the whole party scene. His older brothers and sister they went through it and they give him advice all the time. So Josh is very chill when he gets into high school. No worries. The teachers don’t seem to notice him and the kids are really immature. Josh wants to make friends with the older kids. He feels like he is more like them, more mature and worldly so he ignores his classmates and they ignore him. He can feel lonely at school and out of sorts. He looks forward to art class because a few cool older kids are in that class and he sits with them. Josh finds school more challenging than he thought it would be. He really thought everything would be really easy but it’s not. Maybe he’s not as smart and cool as he thought he was. Maybe he doesn’t have any idea who he is. That is scaring him. But he doesn’t want anyone else to know. He can’t appear unsure, that is a death sentence, so he speaks with a deeper voice than he really has and starts to smoke pot during lunch with the older kids. Josh tried out for the tennis team and didn’t make it. He tried out for the school play and got a tiny part he didn’t take. Then he stopped trying out. Why bother. I can’t fail if I don’t try, he reasons. That’s the safest way to get through school. Josh feels better when he is getting high and he is doing it more and more. He even got high before school the other day. That was crazy. He couldn’t stop laughing, then he felt really tired and a little depressed, so he wanted to get high at lunch again, which he did.

Victoria is 15, a sophomore and gay or at least she is experimenting with being a lesbian. She’s not troubled by it too much because most of the people she hangs out with hook up with anyone, boy or girl, when they’re drunk. When you’re drinking and getting high, there are no rules, anything goes, and the next day, you just Facebook your friends and say that you hardly remember what happened, “i was wasted.” But Victoria really wants to get into a good college. She wants to make money so she can get the things she wants to get. She wants choices and freedom. She hates her parents and wants to move as far away from them as possible and she hates school but she plays by the rules because what choice does she have. She smokes pot at parties and drinks and then spends the night at a friends so her parents never know what’s up. She lies to them all the time. Actually the only real problem she has is shoplifting. It’s a cool thrill to go into a store and take something without paying for it. High school sucks because there is way too much work and there’s just no way anyone in their right mind can keep up with it without cheating. And she needs to get into a good college so she cheats and is as sweet as she can be to her teachers. She wants them to like her even though she thinks they’re all idiots, except the art teacher, she’s cool. How can you like someone or even be friends with someone when you know they’re going to grade you in the end and that grade will determine your future. What’s that about? She lives on texting and is an amazingly fast. Her mom said she would take her phone away if she went over again. She did of course and her mom didn’t of course. Adults definitely don’t have it figured out. There just so consumed with following their own rules. Victoria is about making her own rules in secret so she doesn’t get in trouble and hurt her chances of going to a good college.

JC is 16 and all about chilling. He thinks he probably has a learning problem because he can’t remember much and his grades are bad. But that’s cool. What does he need to remember anyway. He’s got the school thing down. He shows up because school is where he hangs with his friends. It’s about socializing – that’s it. Some of the teachers are cool. The history teacher is cool to listen to. He likes the 60’s. JC likes the 60’s also. They don’t talk personally but JC likes the way he thinks, the way he sees things. JC’s into trying new things. He’s done a lot of drugs. No he hasn’t done opiates but he’s into narcotics, prescription drugs, you know, percs and adderal. It’s good stuff but he knows his limit, when it’s too much. He feels pretty good about how much he has the drug thing under control. Not like some other guys he know. He gets his stuff at school and a lot of days takes something to get through the day. Otherwise it can be pretty monotonous. When you’re high at school, listening to your music, being around your friends, life is pretty sweet. All you got to do is go to class and sit there. You can even put your head down and take a nap. Most teachers won’t bother you and the ones that say something, you just keep your head up, yo know, resting your head on you hand. It’s no big deal. JC is not interested in college. He’s not thinking that far ahead. Right now, he’s got a job at Stop and Shop stocking shelves where he works about 15 hours a week. JC’s parents are divorced and he lives with his mom. Most nights he is home alone because his mom has to work nights. He hasn’t seen his dad since he was 11. He sends birthday cards. Maybe he’ll be there for graduation. No matter.

Molly is 17 and will be an 18-year-old freshman. She thought about taking a year off but is anxious that she will not make friends easily because she’ll be a year older than other freshman. Molly is hyper worried that her SAT scores are good enough. She has taken a total of six AP classes and went to Kaplan to prep for the SAT I and II’s. She’s not taking any chances. She’s hyper worried she’ll be rejected from everywhere, nobody will want her. She’s applied to 12 colleges and is frantic the world will then find out she’s not smart and has nothing to offer, that really, she’s empty inside, a feeling she’s been fighting for years. It’s why she stays so busy. When she slows down, she gets that feeling of dread. When that happens, she has a secret way to handle it. Absolutely no one knows she cuts and restricts. She doesn’t let it get out of hand, then all hell would break loose. She does it just enough to ease the pain when it’s unbearable like during exams and now cause she’s waiting to find out if anyone wants her. But once she gets into college, she feels then that she can start to relax and maybe get to know herself a little bit. Molly won’t have to prove to colleges she is good enough because she will be in one, that is if she gets accepted.

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Without care and attention, social and emotional learning is relegated to a kind of survival of the fittest and mindless learned behavior. A dramatic example of what could happen when children are left to themselves is explored in William Golding’s chilling novel Lord of the Flies, where a group of school age boys are left to survive on their own on a deserted island. “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart…”

We read similar stories in the newspaper every day and know that William Golding’s unsparing novel about the brutality of children is not off base. Just yesterday, a “wolf pack” of seven boys attacked a 13-year-old boy while one attacker recorded it on his cell phone. Social and emotional intelligence is learned intelligence and gained through awareness, reflection and being in relationship with an invested adult world. Left on their own, children are limited in dealing with complex feelings and situations. They will act cruelly. They will do stupid things. Are they bad kids or are they not getting the right kind of education? If we don’t cultivate their humanity through education that addresses their social and emotional needs, bullying will continue to happen.

No story, no matter how horrible it is, surprises me. Human beings are capable of terrible things. History teaches us this. We read about it in the newspaper or know it first hand. The media acts surprised, even righteous when these stories come out. How could this happen? When we neglect educating the whole child, we cannot expect to produce a whole human being, someone who is balanced and well adjusted. Education reaps what education sows.

We learn through experience. What is critical to the learning process is taking time to make sense of experience, to process and find meaning. Left to fend for themselves, children become reactive learners and mimic other behaviors for guidance.

Social and emotional learning should not be relegated to isolated learning opportunities where kids are taught how to behave. SEL needs to become a way of life inside the school. It’s a class just for kids. It’s the way teachers see and treat their students. It’s the school culture with students, teachers and parents all taking part and supporting the raising of emotionally healthy children.

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Sitting Apart

When a child begins to struggle as Jonas, age 7, is struggling in first grade, he is quickly labeled with learning and/or behavioral problems. Tagging children is a double edged sword. Students needing help must be identified so they receive support; at the same time, labeling children with behavioral/learning problems skirts social and emotional issues that may be the source and the solution to emerging “problems.”

As one teacher said, “I’m sick to death of being held responsible for whether students are happy. That’s not my job. I was trained to teach, not be a therapist.”

Jonas’s parents are called in for their first parent/teacher conference, where Jonas’s teacher, Miss Hurley, reports their son’s distractedness and sociability are causing him to fall behind his classmates. Miss Hurley, a young, efficient-looking teacher, tells Louisa and Sam that Jonas is now sitting apart from the class, in his own “big boy” desk so he can better focus on the work. She gestures over to a lone desk parked next to her desk and away from the round tables where the other children sit. Sam and Louisa imagine their son there and instantly feel defensive, lonely for him and a little afraid. Is this a judgement of their parenting? Is there something wrong with Jonas? Is he different from other children?

They tell Miss Hurley that Jonas has always been a happy child but lately he seems glum, quieter, when he gets off the school bus. Some mornings, Louisa says, “He doesn’t want to go to school.”

These are tricky waters – protective parents, a defensive, stressed-out teacher. Miss Hurley knows that an unhappy child makes for unhappy parents and it’s important to show confidence and expertise, to hide her own doubt and insecurity. She doesn’t want Sam and Louisa to think she isn’t a good, caring teacher but she also wants them to understand that their child is challenging, that maybe he has some issues that need addressing. But she knows she is getting ahead of herself. Today, Jonas’s parents need to understand that sitting apart from the class is in the best interest of Jonas and the class.

“It’s only November and some children need extra help focusing and sitting in their own big boy desk can be very helpful to them. It is by no means a punishment,” Miss Hurley says, nailing the very concern Sam and Louisa are thinking about. “Other children will sporadically have their own desks throughout the year if I think it will help them focus,” she adds, hoping to ease their obvious anxiety that their child has been singled out.

“School was hard for me,” Sam blurts with some emotion. “I hated it and I don’t want Jonas to go through what I went through.”

“I understand. Of course. A lot of children have trouble adjusting to being in school all day, sitting at a desk and not talking unless they raise their hands is hard. Jonas is good at that. He always raises his hand. He clearly wants to please. Sitting apart is helping him focus on his work so he doesn’t fall behind. That’s all. Once he catches up, he’ll rejoin the children at the round table,” Miss Hurley assures Louisa and Sam. In truth, she doesn’t see Jonas returning to the round tables. He’s too hyper, immature and unfocused and he drags the other children down. No, it’s best that he sit apart. It’s best for Jonas, the class and for me, she thinks.

They ask Miss Hurley if the “desk apart” strategy is working so far. Miss Hurley reports confidently that “Jonas no longer has the opportunity to become distracted by other students, so yes, it is better for him. It’s a good thing.”

In the end, they have little power or knowledge to argue her decision. Probably this ernest teacher is right but there is the nagging suspicion that sitting apart from his classmates is a management tool more than it is a about Jonas and his needs. They are new at being parents of a school-age child, and clearly Miss Hurley is saying to “trust her” but Louisa and Sam hear something else, something unspoken. They hear Miss Hurley saying that she hopes Sam and Louisa don’t become “those” kind of parents, the overprotective, the helicopter, the overbearing kind of parents who won’t let their child struggle or fail, who blame the teacher for their child’s school failure.

In the meetings that follow, Sam and Louisa have the distinct sense that Miss Hurley is doing to them what she is doing to Jonas. She has labeled and dismissed them and their concerns. She has decided they are those kind of parents, parents to be tolerated and endured. They, like Jonas, have become invisible to Miss Hurley and Miss Hurley is an impenetrable blur to them. They can no longer see each other. All they can really do is hope that next year will be better.

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We have to stop blaming kids.

Like most controversial subjects in our hyper media landscape, bullying is under examination. Unfortunately, that examination is so far superficial – with predictable villains and innocents.

But the “why” of bullying is at once deeper and more complex than how it is now being described.

By now the story is disturbingly familiar. A child is bullied and traumatized by a perpetrator who has taken advantage in some malicious way. Parents are shocked and upset that their child is under attack. Teachers and school officials are flummoxed and overwhelmed by the hidden complexity of the problem. Sometimes they hide behind the cloak of school privacy or feel like deer in headlights but mostly they struggle with how to break down this very real problem.

Little is ever resolved and too often the problem is left to parents to manage their child’s torment and unhappiness privately and sometimes tragically.

As readers and parents, we leave these stories angry and confused, generally blaming the perpetrator. How can children be that cruel?

As the Dalai Lama said, we are not born compassionate; we learn compassion just as we learn cruelty, empathy and kindness. We must practice our humanity to embody our humanity and schools have never been in the business of teaching what is now called social and emotional learning. As a result, left to their own devices, children often work out the more complex social and emotional aspects of who they are – on the proverbial playground – in cruel and childish ways.

When growing up, few adults guided me in the social and emotional areas of my development and little has changed. Bullying may be a more pervasive and insidious today and still, adults are notably absent.

In “Waiting for Superman,” the dramatic documentary about our failing public schools, former DC School Chancellor Michele Rhee places blame on adults unwilling to put kids first in terms of getting their learning needs met.

This unwillingness to place children’s learning (and developmental) needs at the forefront of education is where the problem lies. It is right that we focus on teacher effectiveness because teachers create the environment for learning. But, even the best teachers cannot take real and consistent time for non-academic needs. The problems of bullying is essentially relational and “relationship” is not taught in school.

It is the caring, attuned teacher who is most coveted by parent and student. These “special” teachers effectively communicate by naturally taking on the role of a firm but loving parent. They individualize student needs and resist branding kids as “problems.” They grow alongside students and are flexible and creatively incorporate social and emotional learning into their classroom language. They understand that a well-adjusted child is a child whose mind is open to learning.

But another, more dominant group of adults have designed a system of education that ignores the social and emotional aspects of development, allowing for a Lord of the Flies mentality to take place in schools and classrooms. As one teacher said, “I’m sick to death of being held responsible for whether they’re happy or not. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure they are getting their education and that does not include dealing with the emotional stuff. I have no training in that and definitely no time.”

Interpersonal problems between students are not the fault of kids but the fault of a system that is not tending to and caring for students’ social emotional education.

There are no bad kids, just bad systems.

We need to stop blaming kids. Adults need to create learning environments that infuse students with a stronger sense of sense of self and connection to community. That is our responsibility. Not theirs.

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In Their Own Words

“This may not be how you see me. But this is how I see myself”

CLASP surveyed nearly 200 youth from across 13 communities to gain better insight into the unique experiences of young people who have dropped out of high school and reconnected to career and education supports. We asked them to tell us about themselves, share their aspirations and dreams, and describe what supports were most useful in getting them back on track. What we learned was truly inspiring. Our in-depth analysis of the experiences of these formerly disconnected youth will be released in November 2010.

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