From At-Risk to OK | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

From At-Risk to OK

Constant, intense stimulation, pressure to do more and better, media and peer pressure, and life's everyday changes bombard kids from all directions. Living in atmospheres of poverty, crime and abuse puts additional enormous stress on families and children. Many kids turn to defiant behavior or alcohol and drug abuse in an effort to gain control over something in their lives, putting them at-risk for failure or worse. At-risk kids frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder similar to that seen in combat soldiers. It is not inevitable that these kids will spiral out of control or continue cycles of poverty and violence (and fill our prisons) but it does take a different approach to reach and teach them.

What Works
    • Teach and model self-control. Nemours' states that teaching self-control is one of the most important things parents and teachers can do for kids, and provides age-appropriate guidelines for infants to teens.

• Teach mindfulness. "Mindfulness creates space, changing impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses," states Mindfulness is a secular practice based on Eastern principles of calming the mind, and includes breathing and focusing exercises. Proponents, such as the Association of Mindfulness in Education (, say the techniques improve attention and concentration, provide social-emotional awareness, heighten body awareness and coordination, and expand interpersonal skills.

Maurice Elias, Rutgers University psychology professor (writing on, the website of the George Lucas Educational Foundation), has identified four basic ingredients to help at-risk youth:

• Caring, sustained relationships. At-risk kids frequently have never known anyone they trust, and just being an authority figure doesn't hold any weight for them. Trust has to be earned, and creating a strong, caring and sustained relationship will do that.

• Reachable goals. It's easy to want the things our culture says to want, but not every kid can be a top-of-charts rapper or a super model, especially not overnight. Through strong relationships, we can teach kids to channel their energy to achieve challenging school, career and personal goals. "The most motivating
goals are those within our reach if we exercise some effort," Elias writes.

• Realistic, hopeful pathways. We must show kids the way to reach their goals, and let them know that going off the path sometimes doesn't destroy their dreams. Merle Schwartz of the Character Education Partnership calls it "leeway and forgiveness":  Prepare our kids for obstacles, teach them that actions have consequences, then support them when they have problems, even when it's challenging to do so.

• Engaging school and community settings. Provide opportunities for kids to make positive contributions and gain recognition. Encourage teamwork, and help kids learn new skills that they find valuable. This includes after-school activities and community programs like the Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouting, Big Brothers and Sisters and faith-based groups.

Is Your Teen At Risk?, a resource website for parents and the general public, states that if a child displays four or more of the following behaviors, they could be at-risk.

• Being suspended, expelled, truant, or having his or her grades drop
• Being verbally abusive
• Struggling with basic family rules and expectations
• Problems with the law
• In danger of dropping out of school
• Associating with a suspect peer group
• Losing interest in activities, sports, hobbies or childhood friends
• Displaying suicidal tendencies
• Seeming depressed or withdrawn
• Displaying violent behavior
• Being sexually promiscuous
• Changing appearance or personal hygiene
• Being deceitful and manipulative
• Stealing money or personal items from his or her family
• Severely lacking in motivation
• Lying about his or her activities
• Displaying outbursts of temper
• Lacking self-worth and self-esteem
• Defying established rules regardless of consequences
• Having problems with authority
• Parent(s) has difficulty getting teen to do basic chores and homework
• Parent(s) must pick words carefully to avoid a verbal attack or rage
• Parent(s) feels powerless when dealing with the teen
• Parent(s) suspects the teen is using drugs or alcohol

Never Too Late for Social Skills

Studies show anti-social kids are much more likely to get in trouble. Emory University psychologist Stephen Nowicki says: "Children who can't read or express emotions will constantly feel frustrated."

Teach and model:
• Not to invade personal space.
• To read nonverbal cues.
• To look and speak directly to others when spoken to.
• To initiate social contact, not always wait.
• To carry on a conversation, not use one-word replies.
• To ask open-ended questions; start with "tell me about ...."
• To express gratitude to and in front of them constantly.
• To let others walk through doors first.
• To say thanks and please (careful: overuse of "sir" and "ma'am" can seem anti-social).
• That reading can change their lives—and slow them down.

How to Raise a Bully or a Criminal ...

Like geniuses, criminals aren't born, either. Society and their own families create them, un-nurtured into anti-social patterns. "Children who are anxious, angry or depressed don't learn," writes Daniel Goleman in "Emotional Intelligence." Here's how to prod kids toward a downward spiral:

• Shuttle an unwanted child from home to home.
• Emotionally abuse her: with meanness, threats, belittlement and insult humor.
• Physical discipline: Sorry, research doesn't approve of the "tough love" attitude of "I'm not hurting the child; just showing love."
• Instill no empathy for others unlike (or worse off than) him; thus, he will have no ability to feel victims' pain.
• Use TV or video games as constant babysitters. They lead to anger, depression and loneliness.
• Allow your child to be overly shy and anti-social.

... But They Can Be Saved

Fortunately, destructive behavior can be reversed. Start now.

• Learn social intelligence, fix your own weaknesses and mirror it. Now.
• Show concern for those unlike you.
• Expose kids to those less fortunate and find a way they can help and empathize.
• Teach them to meditate: to sit quietly with their thoughts.
• Make sure your kids are around strong role models, including those of their gender and race.
• Learn to argue intelligently with your spouse. Kids copy you.
• Get your children out of violent situations.
• Learn to discipline without hitting. Just because you survived spankings and beatings unscathed doesn't mean your child will.
• Talk to young people; don't hide from them.
• Don't mistake a nervous kid as a dangerous one.
• Sound smart and talk "adult" with kids who don't expect it.
• Show kids what smart and successful looks like (as in: them some day).

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