Not Forgetting

The Tiger Woods saga appears, finally, to have moved off the front pages. Because Tiger, like most professional athletes, is in the entertainment business, I guess a lot of folks found his marital indiscretions to be as compelling as his golf game. Of course, the most tragic aspect of the situation -- the part typically given short shrift in situations like this (think John and Kate) -- is the impact Tiger’s actions have had on his two kids. Without knowing him, it’s hard to say what lagging skills, needs, or attitudinal factors may be implicated in Tiger’s difficulty doing monogamy well.

Fortunately, in the case of behaviorally challenging kids, we have the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems to make the figuring out a part a lot easier. And, lest we forget, figuring out what’s getting in the way for challenging kids is a lot more important. That, of course, is the problem: sometimes we forget. I’ve heard it said that we find the lives of our celebrities to be riveting because they provide some useful life lessons for the rest of us, and I suppose Tiger’s “transgressions” have given us some food for thought in the Dishonesty, Deception, and Betrayal departments (with some additional flourishes thrown in to keep us titillated). But we wouldn’t want to become so consumed by the entertainers and life’s other distractions that we lose sight of tragedies occurring right in front of us.

There are many to choose from, but here’s the ongoing tragedy I think about most: despite everything we’ve done for a very long time to try to stem the tide, despite all the hard work of so many people, we’re still struggling to reach and help way too many behaviorally challenging kids and their families and teachers. That’s why rates of dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, gang involvement, and incarceration remain tragically high. If we want to change things for the better for our most vulnerable kids, we’re going to have to focus a lot less on whether it was Tiger’s golf-club-wielding wife or his steering wheel that did damage to his lip that fateful evening and a lot more on figuring out what we can do differently so we can stop doing damage to challenging kids in our schools through application of counterproductive disciplinary procedures that have the primary effect of alienating those kids who most desperately need to be drawn back into the social fabric of our schools.

We’ll also have to focus less on whether Alabama or Texas ends up ranked number one in college football and instead devote the same passion and energy that we apply to rooting for our favorite sports teams to helping the “underdogs” in our schools. We’ll have to tone it down a little on recognizing, admiring, and venerating the feats of people who are good at throwing or catching a football and ramp it way up on recognizing, admiring, and venerating the feats of the people in the trenches who are going deep to help and advocate for challenging kids (stay tuned to this website for further developments along these lines). We’ll have to think less about whether the Indianapolis Colts should have tried harder to preserve a perfect season, and instead think about whether we’re prioritizing and doing the right things to preserve the futures of the kids at greatest risk for being lost. We’ll have to be a little less preoccupied with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Danica Patrick, and preoccupy ourselves with how to steer things in the right direction for the many other Jimmies and Jeffs and Danicas who have little chance of winding up in the winner’s circle because their behavioral challenges are so poorly understood and treated.

So it’s clearly a matter of getting our priorities straight. But there are other reasons many kids are still slipping through the cracks, though it's definitely not because we don’t know who they are. We can identify the kids at greatest risk for poor outcomes at very early ages. We know who they are. It’s also not because there aren’t lots of people trying hard to help. These kids and their families are often well-known to social service and law enforcement agencies and school staff. And it’s not because we aren’t spending enough money on them. These are already some of the most expensive kids in our society. One major factor is our failure to systematically keep track of our vulnerable kids -- across agencies and systems -- to make sure they’re getting what they need and coordinating the efforts of the different people and agencies trying to help them. We have complicated mathematical algorithms for keeping track of Tom Brady’s passing efficiency; we have similarly complex equations for calculating Derek Jeter’s on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentage. But in most places we still do a very poor job of carefully monitoring the Toms and Dereks at high risk for poor outcomes. Perhaps most important, it’s clear that the Smorgasbord Approach to intervention – having lots of different people involved in helping a kid and family – doesn’t seem to be working very well. It’s fine to have lots of chefs working on the same dish, but if there are no cohesive themes -- no shared set of lenses -- regarding how kids come to be challenging or what ought to be done to help them be less challenging, then the different ingredients aren’t going to work well together and the consumers are going to feel they’re being fed confusing, often contradictory information.

Many of the key themes can be drawn from the Bill of Rights for Behaviorally Challenging Kids on this website:

- Challenging kids lack crucial cognitive skills; they’re challenging because they’re lacking the skills not to be challenging
- Like all of us, challenging kids are challenging under certain conditions: when the demands being placed upon them exceed their capacity to respond adaptively
- These conditions – called “unsolved problems” – are generally highly predictable and can be identified and addressed proactively
- Challenging behavior is not due to poor motivation, the seeking of attention, manipulation, limit-testing, or coercion
- Parents of behaviorally challenging kids are not passive, permissive, inconsistent, noncontingent disciplinarians
- Diagnoses pathologize kids and do not help us understand the true factors underlying challenging behavior

And much of what we should be doing to help them be less challenging is highlighted on this website as well:

- Unsolved problems are best addressed by engaging kids and their adult caregivers in a process of Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS), through which realistic, mutually satisfactory solutions can be agreed upon and lagging skills taught
- Solving problems in this way keeps kids engaged, maintains relationships, and enhances communication
- Imposition of adult will – including the use of reward and punishment procedures – does not solve problems durably, does not keep kids engaged, does not enhance relationships and communication, often sets the stage for challenging behavior, and pushes kids further away

It's very hard work, and it takes time. But, as you may know, the above themes and interventions have been applied in some pretty exciting places already. The juvenile detention system in Maine is an excellent example. Not long ago, the system was identified by Amnesty International as one of the worst in the country. Now it’s winning awards for leading the way on how to do it instead. Along the way, the recidivism rate has plummeted from around 70 percent to around 15 percent. The CPS model provided many of the themes and intervention ingredients; the rest was the vision, creativity, and relentless dedication of the people working in that system.

The goal – yes, now I’m dreaming, but that’s where it starts -- is to view Maine’s juvenile detention system as a microcosm for what’s possible in other systems and in entire communities. Change the lenses. Identify the kids and their lagging skills and unsolved problems. Start solving problems collaboratively and teaching skills. Build relationships. Keep track of the kids and of what everyone who’s trying to help them is doing. Don’t stop.

I had the pleasure of speaking in December at three conferences where people who care for and about vulnerable kids -- judges, police and parole officers, educators, parents, mental health professionals, people working in juvenile detention and social service agencies – came together to try to find ways to do something more for vulnerable, challenging kids. On December 4th, I participated in the Maine Rising conference in Augusta, inspired by Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, Karen Baldacci (the state’s First Lady), and Peter Pitegoff, Dean at the University of Maine Law School, and organized by the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, the University of Maine  Law School, and the Muskie School of Public Service. Admirably, Maine is looking for ways to reduce the number of kids referred into juvenile detention, to dramatically reduce its dropout rate, and to create more and better community resources for kids besides detention. A few days later I participated in a conference with similar goals in Wells, Maine, sponsored by Keeping Maine’s Children Connected, NAMI of Maine, and the York County Jurisdictional Team Planning, and centering on the themes of connection, collaboration, and continuation. (Those who attended this conference deserve special recognition because of the weather they endured to get there.) And on December 11th, I was in Rochester, New York, speaking at a conference organized by the Youth Services Quality Council of Rochester and Monroe County, with a very similar focus. There are people trying to change things for the better in many places. And yet, we still have a lot of work to do.

I saw the movie Blind Side -- the “feel-good” movie of the holiday season – a few weeks ago. A very nice story, and true no less. But I’m still not feeling so good. See, it’s not about entertainment. It’s about The Real World. We can't forget that there are still too many kids who aren’t in the huddle. We’re either a big tent or we’re not. If you need help moving your system or community in the right direction, Lives in the Balance is here to help. Let us know how we can assist you. 

Ross Greene 
January 3, 2010