Showing posts with label at-risk kids. Show all posts
Showing posts with label at-risk kids. Show all posts

Saturday, November 11, 2023

What's Your Truth?


                                            "the truth is..." (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by memory_collector

Those of us who work with kids from at-risk environments are challenged by the truths embedded within their trauma. How much we know about the conditions of their lives is dependent on many things, not the least of which are the protocols surrounding the appropriate disclosure of the always sensitive details. Who needs to know? Can those who perhaps want to know impactful details about the kids they work with handle the emotions surrounding the circumstances? Are there those who won't benefit from knowing these details but insist on not being kept out of the loop? 

There appears to be a fairly aggressive desire to know as "much as we can" about the kids we work with, but what if we're focusing on the wrong truths? I'm the first person to assert that we need to know as much as we can about the "story behind the story" of the kids and families we serve, but when circumstances prevent us from knowing as much as we'd hope to, I think we can totally divine a simpler construct in support our most vulnerable clients. In the very simplest of terms, there's only one truth we absolutely need to implicitly know in order to do our best work with kids from at-risk environments... our own.

I have often been involved in difficult conversations regarding the "need to know." At times when it has been necessary to disclose confidential information about a child's personal circumstances, I will typically hear teachers and other school personnel make statements like, "If I had known more about this child, I would have changed the way I interacted with him," to which I typically ask two questions in reply... why and how? 

There's one thing we implicitly need to know about kids surviving adverse childhood experiences; our personal truth in the way we feel about supporting kids no matter the type of environment they arrive from every day. Call it a philosophy, a perspective, or whatever you'd like, but the way we perceive our role as kare-givers (caring for kids from at-risk environments,) is the most important awareness we need to be clear about and one that we can never go wrong with if it emerges from the right perspective. The first part of this truth is that we can never, ever judge a child. I often find that this judgement, when it does happen, is grounded in incorrect assumptions about the child; that the behaviour they're communicating with is intentional or premeditated. It's not.

This inaccurate judgement often also manifests in damaging language (verbal and body) that gets communicated back toward the child. We act out what we're feeling, even when we don't realize we're doing it. When we feel that kids are intentional in being "bad," the tendency to take their perceived actions personally is heightened. Our best work cannot materialize when we believe kids are coming to school with deliberate intent to make our day, and their classmate's days as miserable as possible.

Kids know much more about who they're dealing with than we know about them. I often say kids are like horses; they pick up on our nuances and impressions toward them so much more skillfully than we can toward them just like a horse can feel his rider through the saddle better than the rider can feel the horse. This reality puts both the horse, and the child, at a distinct advantage with respect to the ways they respond to our actions, feelings, and words directed toward them. Kids know when we're not at ease dealing with them.

If all of us who work with kids could empathetically approach each of them with kindness and acceptance perhaps we can get by without the advantage of knowing about where they come from. We'd be expressing nothing toward them that necessarily needed to be reacted to. We would be tapping into what good solution-focused therapists know about effectively working with their clients; that you don't need to dwell on the problems to effectively set goals toward the solutions. We should harbor no animosity toward others for not disclosing details about kids we don't need to know. We could simply feel what we should feel about our role as educators; privileged and humbled to have the opportunity to support them from wherever they arrive each and every day. Defaulting to that presents very good odds that we'll build the trust and comfort necessary for kids arriving from at-risk environments not to be at risk within our classroom environments too. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

I believe we never stop learning...

I believe that we never stop learning, despite ourselves. Those who embrace the joy of learning, embrace the joy of life.
 flickr photo via fotologic

One thing I know about kids is that they have tremendous capacity to be resilient. Most young children are unfettered by "the world." They have a very fortunate egocentric perspective that shelters them from the sort of stress that adults deal with. They see everything anew and are mindful of it all. They see possibilities where adults see constraints. They ask "why" and "how" seeking understanding about everything they encounter. Each is a nomad on  a journey of discovery. Young children embrace the joy of life through their experiences; this is how they make sense of the world; how they learn.

Young kids do a lot of living. Their experiences are so visceral, raw and authentic... how could they not learn from them? They embrace every experience, and in turn, embrace learning; the two are synonymous in kids' minds... they believe the world is one of possibility, and they seek to be part of that possibility. They see the world they believe as opposed to believing the world they see.

Like my friend Ted, I am a sucker for sappy songs... and also for sappy videos; especially when they make a statement as simple as this one does.

Video credit with appreciation to Junior Chamber International Petaling Jaya

One of the most effective ways I can think of to help kids hold onto their dreams is to model hanging on to ours. Adults who remain connected to their child-like belief that all is possible provide effective modelling for those kids that may be vulnerable to the negative influences of the world. Adults experience the world in ways that knock us down a bit, but if we can remember that there is something to be learned from every experience, even the bad ones, perhaps we can make a bit more sense of it all, and then we'd be embracing the joy of learning and life just like we did when we were kids.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kids From At-Risk Environments

It's been a while since I started blogging, and today another person asked me why I call my blog 'KARE Givers' ... I thought I should explain the origin of this acronym (no, it's not a misspelling.)

Before my one-year counseling career last year and first administrative appointment this year, I spent fourteen years teaching and learning with some most worthy, but very damaged children. The literature said these kids were "at-risk", but I never accepted that. To say the kids I taught back then were at-risk seemed to unfairly place the responsibility for being that way on them, and I didn't agree this should be the case. After some years of deep thought on the issue, I developed a perspective that these kids were not at-risk, as the literature suggested, but that they came from at-risk environments, a slight, but critical distinction... hence the acronym KARE- Kids from At-Risk Environments.

As our epiphany evolved through our working experiences and our research, my colleagues and I began to focus on student strengths as opposed to their weaknesses, and before long our optimist's lens allowed us to see what we believed... that under their tough outer shells of defensiveness, anxiety and angst, these kids were worthy, competent and caring young people who just happened to arrive at our door dealing with a litany of emotional and behavioral problems, and each case was totally different with the exception of one element... to a student, they all arrived from a place that did not serve their needs effectively; an at-risk environment. In every single case there was an environmental dynamic in the child's life outside of school that prevented positive development... they truly had bigger fish to fry, so to speak, than anything school could throw at them.

We read like fiends everything we could get our hands on that would provide any insight into what we and our students were dealing with. In Reclaiming Lost Youth- Our Hope for the Future, (what would become our bible in the early days,) Dr. Martin Brokenleg, Larry Brendtro and Steven Van Bockern introduced the concept of reclaiming kids. The authors describe the reclaiming environment as "one that creates changes that meet the needs of the young person and the society. To reclaim is to recover and redeem, to restore to value something that has been devalued." Many refer to this sort of plan as a "win-win" situation, and undoubtedly it can be when focused in the right direction. The authors indicate that reclaiming environments feature:
  1. Experiencing belonging in a supportive community, rather than being lost in a depersonalized bureaucracy.
  2. Meeting one's need for mastery, rather than enduring inflexible systems designed for the convenience of adults.
  3. Involving youth in determining their own future, while recognizing society's need to control harmful behavior.
  4. Expecting youth to be caregivers, not just helpless recipients overly dependent on the care of adults.
We worked hard to construct teaching and learning environments that displayed these characteristics, and our efforts payed off in spades. Like so many things that seem too simple to be true, adhering to these four principles created focus on the right, restorative and logical elements of what our students needed from us, and the reclaiming culture we needed to facilitate. We realized over time that it's all about perspective... we needed to see what we believed.

In more recent years I have had the opportunity and pleasure to share tales of my experiences with other teaching and learning professionals as a workshop facilitator and lecturer. During these presentations it is inevitable, (and I've done dozens of them,) that one of the audience members will state rather matter- of- factly to me that the kids in her school don't need to be reclaimed because they don't have the sort of severe problems that I describe as part of the session. Let's remember, it's all about perspective...

At this point I pull up my picture of a dandelion, and often share this poem...

Lucien's Birthday Poem
Yes, a dandelion
because they are the flower
of wishes. You blow that ball
of seeds and the wind carries them to the one
assigned to grant or reject.
And it's a good thing
that it's the dandelions
who have this power
because they are tough
and sometimes you have to be tough
to even remember
that you have any desires left at all,
to believe that even one
could be satisfied, would not turn
to an example of
"be careful what you wish for,
it might come true."
Maybe that's exactly why
there are so many of them -
the universe gives us extra chances
to keep dreaming.
Each one an uprising,
a burst of color
in the cracks of our hearts,
at an unexpected time,
in an unexpected place.

Ellie Schoenfeld

After this, we talk about perspective. To a young child, dandelions are flowers. To the vast majority of adults, they are weeds. It's all about perspective...

Now that I've been away for some time from the alternative teaching and learning environments that changed my life, I find that I can't identify anymore what an at-risk environment is. As a counselor, (and every teacher wears that hat whether they like it or not,) and a teacher in what we refer to as a mainstream educational environment, I have come to believe that if any child feels anxiety, fear, isolation or any other debilitating emotional state as a result of the environment they endure, they come from an at-risk environment- it doesn't matter if we think their feelings are justified... if it's real to them, it's real. In this sense, every child is potentially a KARE kid- a kid from an at-risk environment.

There's only one way to begin to associate with the often unknown environmental factors affecting the children we work with every day in school; learn their story. Not until then can we truly be present for the kids we serve- not as a teacher charged with teaching, but more importantly, not as a person who genuinely cares; a KARE Giver.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Unconditional teaching- be ready when a student chooses you...

flickr CC image via RachelLovesToLaugh

 "The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for." - Bob Marley
I've spent a considerable amount of time during my career working with kids from at-risk environments. I say from at-risk environments purposely as opposed to kids at-risk because in the vast majority of cases, these children have had absolutely no part in putting themselves at-risk... they haven't chosen to be that way. Risk in the social-emotional, behavioral, economic, mental or any other all fall in the domain of the adult. Sadly, but undeniably, when adults are experiencing risk, the environment that results will affect the kids exposed to it.

I have met and worked with hundreds of resilient kids who have found ways to endure, and overcome these risk environments. The overwhelming majority have done this by seeking and depending on responsible adults to support their effort. Regarding the most overwhelming problems facing kids today, I would go out on a limb and say that it would take the rarest of individuals who could overcome them alone. We have to be ready when a child chooses one of us as the responsible adult he thinks will be able to help.

Often, the at-risk environments these kids experience include situational violence that can be hard to displace; even when they aren't directly threatened by it. In school, whether through their actions, feelings or words, these kids will typically be perceived as the more violent variety, and this is off-putting to many who work with them. However, besides the generalized violence we see in these kids, what if there was a deliberate purpose to their presentation?

I believe that many of the most adversarial kids in school are the ones that need our help the most, and they're also the ones who have developed an ingenious strategy to filter the proverbial wheat from the chafe, so to speak. Kids who know pain, know how to wield pain... so that's what they do. They do this because they want to determine, very simply, who will take it and still be there the next day to do it all over again- they do it to find out which teachers believe they are worth suffering for.

We are always hardest on those who we're closest to because we feel safe that they will stick with us. We know that their unconditional love is displayed through a lack of judgment, acceptance of our faults and through a willingness to share our pain holding hands together toward a better future.

Next time a student is making your day miserable, ask yourself why because it just may be that you're the one he wants to believe he's worth suffering for.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"I need another note..."

Those of us who are privileged to work in schools need to be aware of  how the slightest act can lead to a massive realization on behalf of one of our disciples... we need to take this element very seriously. I have many stories of exceptional teachers who knew this implicitly.

My career has provided the opportunity to witness some pretty incredible people working very effectively with kids that not too many would be successful with. During my eight years working exclusively with kids from at-risk environments in a congregated special education context, (in Alberta the Department of Education designates these kids under code 42- those manifesting severe emotional/behavioral difficulties... I just coded them as needing someone to believe in them,) I was dumbfounded at the levels of resiliency these kids displayed, and profoundly saddened at the same time as a result of being forced to know what they were overcoming on some days just to make it to school at all. I took the long way home many days during those eight years. At the same time, I was repeatedly encouraged by my exposure to levels of with-it-ness in my colleagues that were off the charts when dealing with these kids' stories.

One such story popped into my thoughts today as I was writing about a colleague in another post- We need schools where "everybody knows your name." Dan McDonald taught in our Behavior Program for ninth and tenth grade kids. One day as Dan tells the story, a young girl arrived at school in a particular state of anxiety. She was pregnant, and the world was weighing heavily on her... that much was obvious. Never judgemental, Dan and his support staff watched her closely that afternoon, looking for any clue that may help tell her story that day. In the gentle conversations that ensued it became apparent that the girl was at her wits end with life in general, and she was planning to get loaded that Friday night... to drink and smoke her sorrows away. As the day wore on, and the staff became increasingly convinced that this young girl was serious, Dan came up with the best 'think-on-your-feet' plan he could; he told the girl she wasn't going to do that.

The response was painfully predictable... "yes I am!", the girl said. Dan reiterated, "no you're not," and she responded, "what the hell are you going to do about it?" Without really knowing what he was going to do if he was being totally honest, Dan blurted out the first thing that came to his mind; he said to one of the support staff members, "Ethel, what are we going to do about it?" Her response was equally off-the-cuff... "write her a note," she said. So Dan did just that; he wrote her a note indicating all of those reasons why she should not go get loaded as she seemed so intent to do that particular Friday night. She took the note, left for the weekend, and they didn't give it another thought beyond adding it to the generalized concern they felt for their students every Friday night.

Flash-forward about a year...
The girl in question had left the school to care for her newborn baby, and as often happened, one day she came back to the school to visit with her child. Dan and his staff never turned these kids away when this happened; it was as if they had a homing instinct that brought them back, and it was important that they were accepted and welcomed. This visit was a bit different, however. They were talking and holding the baby, getting caught-up with the goings-on of the last year or so in the young girl's life, but the conversation went on for much longer than was usually the case. An hour or so after she arrived, when most of what was usually talked about had already been talked about, Dan sensed there may be something else this girl needed, so he asked exactly that... "not that we are rushing you away or anything, but is there something else you need today, because we really should get back to our lessons for the day." The girl started crying and simply said, "yes, I need another note."

Never underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant acts of caring... you might be the only one in a young person's life who took the time to perform them.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

R.I.P. Phoebe Prince

The January 2010 suicide in Massachusetts of Phoebe Prince prompted investigators to accuse nine of her fellow students with the bullying that may have prompted her suicide. Phoebe Prince was the latest casualty in a war we are not winning; the war on bullying.
 flickr photo via trix0r

How many of these incidents will it take before we realize that our typical reactive response does nothing to prevent future tragic incidents from occurring? The odds stacked against our sons and daughters are overwhelming if they find themselves the subjects of bullying behavior, and we need to stop the cycle. I have written in this blog about the importance of learning bullies' stories, and for those kids on the bully-victim spectrum, I sincerely believe this needs to be done if we are to help ease whatever pain is causing their actions. This proactive approach is necessary to curb the influence of bullying, but it won't bring back Phoebe Prince or any of the others who have succumbed to one of the biggest social challenges educators are facing today... kids tendency to want to share their personal pain.

As a former counselor in middle school, and having worked with kids from at-risk environments for 16 years, I have heard stories that upset me to the point where I have had to take the long way home after a bad day at work in order to avoid displaying my grief to my family. I have been reduced to tears hearing kids stories about their home environments, what they deal with socially at school and how this affects their ability to function in even the most basic ways. Our kids are hurting. They are hurting more profoundly than they ever have before. New faceless tools to inflict pain toward others like text messaging and other social media outlets have produced a desensitized generation of perpetrators that has raised the threat of bullying to epidemic levels.

What are we to do? There are no doubt infinite opinions regarding how to deal retroactively with cases such as Phoebe Prince's, and the vast majority of them will default to an eye for an eye perspective. I honestly have nothing to say about that. What should happen to the individuals involved as perpetrators in cases like this will be decided by the courts, and that will be that. You know what though... I'll say it again; it won't bring back Phoebe Prince.

Our kids are lost... how can we make a statement other than this one while attempting to make any sense whatsoever of incidents like the Phoebe Prince bullycide? There was at least one case in my high school twenty-five years ago, and it's still happening.

We need to do what we do in schools differently if we are to curb this most devastating problem, and as I said before, we should start by knowing kids' stories. Teachers must make it their business to connect with kids on personal levels; to reclaim them. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his foreword to the book, "Reclaiming Youth at Risk- Our Hope for the Future,"

The reclaiming environment is one that creates changes that meet the needs of both the young person and society. To reclaim is to recover and redeem, to restore value to something that has been devalued.

Teachers, and anyone else who works in schools, it's our most imperative moral and ethical responsibility to reclaim our lost children. We need to establish the most basic awareness that children are our gift to the future and that we are not packaging them very well as of late. We need to truly provide safe and nurturing environments in our schools for kids to thrive without fear and anxiety regarding their emotional, social and psychological well-being. As educators, we tend to underestimate the value of those regular day-to-day things we do in schools for kids who are in so much personal pain that they feel they can't live another day. In the words of Carl Jung,
An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feeling. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
Teachers, there are no emergencies in education; we get so worked up about trivial things on a daily basis that we forget, or perhaps some of us never realize that behind the faces of our students are vulnerable young souls dealing with what to them could be life or death problems that overshadow any test, assignment, lab, bit of unfinished homework or any other minor delay in the learning process. Our greatest challenge in contemporary education is to reclaim kids; all of them. Their problems are real, even if they are only real to them- they are real... make no mistake about that. Do not shirk your responsibility to acknowledge this fact, and take the appropriate action to be there when a student chooses you.

That student will choose you because in some way, on any given day, you have provided just a glimmer of hope in the dark and damaging world he/she endures.

Don't be the last person a student came to before doing something bad that cannot be reversed... be the first person a student came to and will never forget because you were willing to share the pain as you held hands without judgement taking those first steps through their grief toward healing.

In the brilliant words of Professor Herbert W. Vilakazi,
"The problems of children and of youth, giving rise to child and youth care programs, can only begin to be solved in that society of humankind’s dream; a more collective-oriented society than at present, when the father of the child shall be every man as old as the child’s father; when the mother of the child shall be every woman as old as the child’s mother; a society of responsibility of the entire community..."
Is there any more important responsibility than this?

Rest in peace Phoebe Prince.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kids Who Outwit Adults...

"Kids Who Outwit Adults", by John Seita and Larry Brendtro, is a must-read for any educator, parent, social worker, therapist, or anyone else who encounters a troubled, hurting child. There is so much that this book provokes in thought and emotion regarding our collective responsibility to take very good care of our kids. If you're interested in positive youth development, you should definitely read this book.

Dr. Seita is a remarkable individual. As a young child, he was apprehended by the State Social Services Department as a result of his mother's lack of ability to care for even his basic needs. Dozens of foster homes and youth care facilities later, 17-year-old John met a new social worker, Larry Brendtro, and many years after that Dr. John Seita co-wrote "Kids Who Outwit Adults" with the same guy, also now addressed as Dr. Larry Brendtro. I have not met another person who can speak so eloquently and genuinely from both ends of the childcare spectrum.

Including a foreword by actor, Matt Damon, the book was inspired by the movie written by he and fellow actor Ben Affleck, "Good Will Hunting." The book references scenes from the movie to begin each chapter as a mirror reflecting the ideas within the chapters. The book also includes numerous anecdotal references to cases Dr. Seita has dealt with as a professional child advocate, and also from his own personal experiences as a youth in care. Underlying the content of the book is the notion that "private logic" is at the heart of every perception people have and perhaps, especially kids. Dr. Seita states,
It is not so much what happens to people that influences their behavior but the meaning they make of their life experiences. Adler also suggests that children construct their private logic and coping strategies as they make sense out of the following issues:
I am...
Other people are...
The world is...
I am of the belief that every child has a story. How kids (people) finish Alfred Adler's prompting statements above are major indicators of how their story affects their perspective. At the heart of a child's story are the experiences and challenges that form the person educators see in front of them every day at school. We make many assumptions about students based on what we see; the lens we look through will influence (I would argue more than any other element of our interaction with kids in school) our practice, our attitude, and our reaction to every child we encounter as educators. We must not take this issue lightly.

Our perceptions of students are more powerful than most have given the time to consider. Physical appearances, mannerisms, language, attitude, and behavior; are all contextual elements of every child, but to those most disadvantaged emotionally, physically, psychologically, and financially, the variables affecting their context are multiplied exponentially... they simply have bigger fish to fry when compared to the typical challenges we present to them as part of a regular school day. Their hearts and minds are not tuned in to school.

Consider the young student who hasn't eaten for days and is used to not eating nutritious food on a regular basis. Consider the child who has never known a loving relationship with a trusted adult in their entire life. Consider the child who has been routinely abused in any number of ways since birth... to these kids from a contextual perspective, we are the strange ones. They don't "live" in our world, they live in theirs, and it's all they've ever known. We need to be vigilant to recognize these kids, and we need to understand that it is grossly unfair to judge them by a standard that doesn't recognize the unique nature of their background... their story.

If we make it our business as teachers to learn kid's stories, our efforts will prove invaluable as far as understanding why for some kids, the math test is not the most important thing on their mind on any given day... then we can begin to put first things first; helping kids deal with their issues on the way to establishing human connections that will improve our ability to teach and their ability to learn.

Learn kids' stories.
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