Tag school

Some (Hopefully) Calming Thoughts About School Violence

domestic violenceRecent accounts of school violence freak most of we parent-lunatics out. This is understandable as the stories are horrific, sensational and in our face when we access the media. I mean for this entry, however, to have a calming effect. I have two primary messages: (1) the rates of school violence appear to be either stable or on the decline and (2) there are multiple preventative measures available.

Rates of School Violence

The Center for Disease Control does a national survey of the risky behaviors engaged in by high school students every couple of years. It is called The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. In the 2013 version (which reported on data collected in 2011), over 15,000 high school students were surveyed. What follows are comparisons of rates of violent behaviors across years of the survey:

Carried a weapon

1991: 26%

2011: 17%

Carried a gun

1993: 7.9%

2011: 5.1%

Carried a weapon on school property"not okay"

1993: 11.8%

2011: 5.4%

A student was threatened or injured on school property

1995: 8.4%

2011: 7.4%

 A student was in a physical fight on school property

1993: 16%

2011: 12%

While any numbers above 0% call us to action, trends such as these may help us to keep the dialogue on track and in perspective.

2 thumbs upPreventative Strategies

I do not mean for this list to be anywhere near comprehensive. What I mean to share are four strategies that, if universally applied, would likely significantly and powerfully reduce the rates of school violence.

√ Maintain, expand or develop school based anti-bullying programs. The entire spectrum of bullying behaviors seems to synergize the risk for violence. Thus, school districts do well to develop and support comprehensive anti-bullying programs; this should include cyber bullying, relational bullying and racial bullying.

√ Do not let youth have unsupervised access to firearms. This is such a no-brainer that I feel like I’m insulting your intelligence to say more. But let me press a little bit by quoting just one of the many studies on point. This study is referencing profiles of youth who had completed suicide: “Firearms…were the manner of death in the majority (70%) of victims whose homes contained firearms.” (I’m a just a lowly psychologist. But, I almost wonder if it would make for good social policy to hold parents responsible if a youth gets access to a gun in their home and hurts himself/herself or someone else.)

√ Promote each child’s competencies. I’ve elaborated on this theme in this blog african woman's half faceand in my parenting book (e.g., methods for identifying competencies). But if a child has instrumental (i.e., specific tasks he or she is good at) and/or social competencies, and has regular opportunities to manifest such, that child possesses a mighty protective shield against life’s slings and arrows. As a related issue, I would suggest putting any vulnerable youth on display at school for a unique and positive contribution (e.g., the kid who raises and lowers the school flag, takes care of a mascot, helps the janitors, holds doors in the morning).

√ Promote each parent spending one hour each week one-on-one with each child doing special time. Readers of this blog, or my parenting book, know where I’m coming from with this. To summarize a complex discussion: I believe that an hour of special time a week is to a child psychologist what a daily apple is to a child’s pediatrician (i.e., as in “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”). Schools would also do well to create opportunities for teachers or administrators to spend one-on-one time with vulnerable youth (e.g., share a lunch), if only once or twice a month.

In closing let me offer that those wishing to develop strategies for discussing school violence with their kids might find some helpful tips in this article.

Reduce Separation Drama On the First Day of School

tantruming girlThe separation on the first day of school can be upsetting for kids and parents. In this entry I offer six strategies for lessening the drama.

#1: Preparation is key. For my blog entry on useful preparation strategies, click here. (Two key points I’ll re-iterate here are to avoid reassurances and the avoidance of developmentally appropriate situations.)

#2: Most kids with separation challenges have one parent, or parent-figure, that they are most attached to. Try to have that person not be the one to take your child to the bus stop or school, at least until the separation has become drama free. Separating from that person at home, while in the company of the other parent, or parent figure, allows your child to get into the separation bath more gradually instead of all at once. It’s also likely easier for your child to separate from the other person when at the bus stop or at school. (My experience is that the second parent/parent figure also tends to be the parent who is less nervous about the separation, which leads to the next point.)

#3: Be calm yourself. Our kids read us in ways that are outside even their black woman smiling backgroundawareness. As there is only so much you can fake, and your anxiety will escalate your kid’s anxiety, use your self-soothing strategies to be cool about school (e.g., thinking about something you’re looking forward to, relaxing your muscles and unobtrusively breathing into your abdomen, engaging another adult in an interesting discussion).

#4: Make the separation as cleanly and as quickly as possible. In this context, syllables synergize symptoms. “Have a great day!” “See you at X time!” “Can’t wait to hear about your day later!” are examples of simple phrases you can use to separate. Chatting your kid up suggests you’re nervous, or expect him or her to be nervous, which may start or fuel drama.

#5: Let whatever adult is taking over deal with any distress your child may be showing. Lengthening the period of separation, in an effort to calm your child, usually has the exact opposite intended effect. Rare is the child who won’t calm down on their own shortly after you leave, especially if the adults with whom you are leaving your child are baseline competent or better. If you’re concerned about this you can always arrange to call the school later to see how your child is doing.

cancel fear#6: If your child continues to struggle with separation for a period longer than two weeks, or your child displays school refusal, consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional. Why have everyone suffering needlessly, right?. To get a referral, click here.

Preparing Your First Time Student for the Fall

mom and daughter2I’d like to organize this post around five Q & As:

1.  Why should parents of rising preschoolers or kindergarteners be thinking about this now?

If no child or adult in your home is experiencing anxiety about the pending school year little preparation may be needed. However, if anyone is nervous a little preparation may increase comfort and reduce drama come the big day. When in doubt, it’s usually better to prepare, when that isn’t warranted, than the other way around.

2.     What are some things parents can do in the home to help prepare their young children?

The short answer: play and read together. The playing could be things like role playing (e.g., one of my fondest parenting memories is my eldest bossing me about the classroom, as my teacher, when we would play this game). It could also be drawing about the pending school year. Kids often use play to acclimate themselves to developmental challenges.

The reading could be acquiring related books on the topic and reading them to dadandsonyour child, maybe following such up with a discussion. I find the books at magination press tend to be helpful while I like how the scaredy squirrel books treat anxiety in general.

3.     Are their any field trips that can be helpful?

Probably the most useful thing you could do would be to take a trip, with your child, to the classroom; even better yet would be to meet the teacher and to talk about what the school year will be like. Many preschool and elementary schools are willing to make such a service available in August. If not, even driving to your child’s school and walking around it, or in it, can be helpful. Also, if your child will be taking a school bus for the first time, it can be a good idea to get permission to sit in a bus for a few minutes. (Meeting his or her actually school bus driver may not be possible. But, if it is, that could be a good idea as well.)

4.     Any other preparation that can be done?

The first preparation is an anti-preparation: avoid reassurances about the school year. But, if you must reassure, try not to overdo it. A reassurance indicates that there is something potentially threatening at hand. If you came to my office and I said to you: “don’t worry about getting lice here as I keep my office very clean” can you imagine how uncomfortable you could start to feel? A well intended, but sometimes unhelpful reassurance, could be something like “Don’t worry about going to school this year. You’re going to love it.” Instead, it might be better to say something like: “Guess what, you’re going to get to make lots of new friends in a few weeks!” But, you don’t want to oversell, less you create the impression that your pushing a lemon.

character students lined up in desksIt can also be fun to collaborate on school clothes and supplies. This needn’t break your bank. Just whatever you can afford. I think it’s also good to segue to your school time sleep routine the week before. (I’ve written multiple blog entries on sleep. Just enter “sleep” in the search engine above.)

5.     Will you be offering any other advice on this topic?

Yes. In the near future I’m going to do a blog entry on how to avoid separation drama on the first day of school. So, stay tuned.

Signs that a Kid Needs Mental Health Services.

About 14-22% of children in the United States suffer from a diagnosable psychological disorder. Add 20% to that number if you include youth who suffer at sub clinical levels. However, only about 20% of these children get effective care. And, even when they get it they’ve often had to suffer for years first. This occurs even though the research on the effectiveness of child psychotherapies is very positive. What would we conclude about our culture if this were true of our childrens’ dental health instead of their mental health?

I’m writing this blog entry to try to review key indicators of when a child might benefit from mental health services. There are four primary areas of functioning that one can consider: relationships with adults, relationships with peers, academics and mood.

Relationships with adults: The key issue is whether the youth gets along reasonably well with adults. Of course this includes parents/parent-figures and teachers. But it also includes coaches, extended family, bosses, etc. If the youth is frequently in conflict or frequently avoidant or detached from any significant type of relationship with adults, an evaluation may be warranted.

Relationships with peers: Kids need to be able to form friendships, and get along effectively, with other kids who are doing well. For example, if a teen’s close friendships are primarily with those who often get into trouble, abuse substances, or are significantly symptomatic, a significant problem may be present. Likewise, if a child or teen is avoidant, aggressive, controlling or otherwise routinely rejected or ignored by most other youth, this is of concern.

Academics: This is one of the trickier areas to describe tightly. The central issue here is not grades, though grades consistently falling in the C and lower range would generally indicate that a problem exists (assuming that the teaching and curriculum are appropriate). The central issue here is the youth applying herself or himself when she or he does not feel like it.  Developing this psychological muscle (i.e., task persistence when internal motivation is required) is one of the most important developmental tasks of childhood. So if a child is not applying herself or himself, or experiencing significant turmoil or failure in academic pursuits, an evaluation is likely warranted.

Mood: The key issue is whether or not the youth is content. Happiness is great. Contentment is the bar however. If the child is consistently sad, angry or anxious for a significant portion of his or her waking day, this is signaling a need for professional attention. It is often the case that a parent may be confused regarding what a child or teen is thinking or feeling. Thus, problems with sleep, appetite, concentration, connectedness with the world or physical activity can be signs of a problem. (There may also be absences of experiences of joy, but more for kids with depressive disorders than anxiety disorders. )

As I write this blog, there are 42 ways that youth can be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. So, this is hardly a comprehensive post. However, if a child is getting along well with others, is doing well in school and seems content, that child may be fine. The only significant area I’ve left out is experiencing success in one or more extracurricular pursuits. While a lack of positive experiences in the latter area is not, by itself, necessarily indicative of a problem, a child who lacks for such experiences may be more vulnerable to attacks on self-esteem.

I hope you will share this blog post with those who could use it. If you would like to read about common myths about mental health services, click here. For ideas on how to afford care click here. And, finally, to find a lean-mean-healing machine in your neck of the woods, click here.

Coping with School Anxiety

The start of the school year often brings worry and anxiety for both kids and parents. The following tips are designed to help parents ease the transition for a child who may be prone to separation anxiety.

Avoid reassurances at the point of separation as such often has the opposite intended effect

A reassurance suggests, to an anxious child, that there is something threatening about to happen. Imagine I said to my clients  “Please don’t worry about the ceiling crashing down on us. I’ve made sure that we are in a safe environment.” Would their anxiety not be heightened as their eyes darted upwards and they wondered why the heck would I say that?

Try to calm any of your own anxiety as our kids often take their cues from us.

If I’m anxious about my son going to school–which is certainly an understandable thing to feel for that first-time departure–he is more likely to feel anxious as well. I do well to try to try to calm myself first and then imply that his going to school is as dramatic as a trip to the grocery store.

If your child is vulnerable to anxious reactions, try to familiarize her with the new setting as much as you can.

Familiarity can soften anxiety. Hence, see if you can arrange for a trip to your child’s classroom in advance. (Actually, the school may have already initiated an invitation along these lines.) It is difficult to imagine that competent school personnel would experience this as an intrusion or an odd request. Should you be unable to reach them take your child for a few dry runs up to the point of the hand off. Moreover, the Scaredy Squirrel books by Melanie Watt can be very helpful to read together.

Teach your child muscle relaxation and belly breathing.

Muscle relaxation and anxiety mix about as well as oil and water. Suggest to your child, if she is vulnerable to separation anxiety, that she is less likely to be afraid if her muscles are like a cooked piece of pasta instead of the uncooked variety. Moreover, she is less likely to experience fear if she breathes into her belly instead of her chest.

Consider arranging for someone less engaged with your child’s anxiety to manage the first few days.

If you anticipate that your child will do a white-knuckled clutch of your leg at the bus stop or at school, try to arrange for another caring and responsible adult to take him from your home to the separation point. By itself, this can reduce your child’s distress as (1) he has accomplished separation from you in a familiar setting (i.e., your home) and (2) he will be accomplishing the separation from someone less engaged with his anxiety.

Make the separation clean and quick.

If there is a significant chance that your child will be distressed at the point of separation arrange for a particular adult to take her hand from yours (or whoever else might be bringing her). Then, make this exchange efficiently. Try to avoid offering reassurances or waiting until your child seems calm. Actually, you might do well to expect some crying/screaming and to steel yourself to leave anyway. You could always call the school later to see how she’s doing; if your experience is typical, you’ll likely be told that she cried for a few minutes after you left and then was fine.

Please also see my post “My Child Gets Afraid A Lot. What Can I Do?

If the above strategies fail, or are otherwise not indicated, please consider consulting with an experienced child psychologist or like professional.

For a referral in your area, click here.

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