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Self-regulation, toxic stress, and Baltimore.

On first sight, you might think that the title of this article leads to one of those four-part pictures from Sesame Street entreating you to decide “Which One of These Things Doesn’t Belong”. Actually, all three of the subjects in the title do go together, it’s just uncomfortable to confront that knowledge.

So, let’s break it down.

Self-regulation is a set of skills that stretch between the domains of cognition, emotion, and and behavior that allow adult humans to make good, prosocial, rational, decisions even under stressful conditions. This group of abilities is based on healthy brain development in the early years, which is fueled by good-enough parenting, and the meeting of the basic physical needs of food, water, and shelter (there is some debate about which is most damaging to forfeit, and the front runner may be the parenting). When things go right for a baby, s/he develops the capacity to regulate her own emotions, thoughts, and actions well enough to fit in socially and survive to adulthood. When things don’t go well, self-regulation may be delayed or halted in one or more domains. A kid or adult with crap self-regulation abilities might appear hostile, aggressive, violent, smart-mouthed, withdrawn, anti-social, hyperactive, lethargic, or unfocused. Other things can cause those behaviors, but quite often, self-regulation is the real culprit, especially when kid is exposed to what’s called toxic stress. Here is a recent research brief about this little combo, read it if you want more depth that a blog post can provide: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/self-regulation-and-toxic-stress-foundations-for-understanding-self-regulation-from-an-applied-developmental-perspective. It’s fascinating.

Toxic stress is different from everyday stress in terms of frequency, intensity, and duration. Most people have some aggravations, annoyances, and frustrations every day. Folks with toxic stress have catastrophic, life-threatening, chaotic, terrifying stress every day, all day. Toxic stress is a nightmare for anyone trying to develop or maintain mental and physical health. There’s a mountain of evidence about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the nasty things too many of those can do to a person over time. Check out the ACE home page for the numbers: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

Lastly, Baltimore (and Ferguson, and North Charleston, etc. etc.).

The (White) police have been shooting up Black folks again. That this happens isn’t news to most people. That it is continuing to happen so often and that so many local jurisdictions haven’t done anything to assess or change the systems that set up the circumstances that foster these murders is shocking. For Black and brown people living in places with a high load of toxic stress, that’s the last straw. Toxic stress is literally poisonous. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones cause the kidneys, heart, and lungs to overwork. Soft tissues like veins and arteries wear out early. In childhood, people exposed to too many ACEs face an uphill battle towards mastering self-regulation in all three domains. Regardless of gender or race, a person growing up amidst toxic stressors develops self-regulation later and less broadly than the same person would in a more safe and stable place. When an adult with a high toxic stress load and low levels of self-regulation is attacked, threatened, or in a hostile-seeming situation, he or she is more likely to react with violence and aggression than a person who lives somewhere safe.

This is not to say that adults shouldn’t be held responsible for damage they do while enraged. However, in places with high levels of toxic stress, no one should be surprised when the proverbial shit hits the fan when yet another citizen is murdered by the police. One of many reasons that the death of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Freddie Grey in Maryland provoked such extremely different reactions from the public was the response of the people who were perceived to be in charge. Although both cities have high levels of toxic stress, the officer who killed Scott was immediately arrested and fired from the force. In Baltimore, no arrests have been made, no announcements from the authorities have been made about suspending the officers involved, and it seems to the citizens there that no one cares. Both cases are obviously tragic and have provoked anger and grief in their respective communities.

In Baltimore, people who are already tired of not mattering have been reassured that they don’t. In North Charleston, it seems that the police force has found a way to communicate to its people that they do matter. When you’re already up against a wall, the last thing you need is someone to shove you up to it harder. That’s when people, many of whom are already short on patience, break. The limbic system essentially stops asking the upper levels of the rational brain for input, and action takes over from reason.

I wish I could close this little rant with some smiley sentence about things getting better. I am glad that Science has now empirically validated how important early environments are to healthy adult development. I am grateful that interventions for schools and clinics are in the works to help stressed out kids learn to self-regulate earlier and better. I’m left wondering if any of it matters.

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Revisiting the sham of culture: Public school edition

Last night in our training clinic, I watched one of our grad students conduct an intake interview with a 17 year old who was recently expelled from school. The idea of expelling kids from school makes me ill to start with, so I watched with a grumpy face. As the session unfolded, I only felt more angry and irritated. This 17 year old kid told the grad student that he was being expelled over, “a lot of little stuff” like tardies, disrespecting teachers, not doing work, etc. I’m not naive enough anymore to buy that story without checking it out with the school, but it was still disturbing. It could be true.

To complicate matters another step, this particular kid is Black, big for his age (athletic big, not fat big) and wore his hair shoulder-length and braided. He spoke very quietly, even after his great-grandmother, who is his guardian left to return to the waiting area. I could easily imagine this guy could scare the crap out of a teacher without really trying, just by being so tall and muscular. But being scared of a kid because he looks like he could tackle you with one arm doesn’t make it ok to throw him out of mainstream society.

[Didn’t you know that’s what expulsion is? Read more here: http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/expansive-survey-americas-public-schools-reveals-troubling-racial-disparities]

I know the U.S. government in general, and the states in particular don’t quite comprehend the problem, but it’s really pretty simple. Here’s the deal, in a simple geometry-ish proof:

1. There is a strong relationship between school failure and life failure (e.g., going to prison).

2. Some kids are at much higher risk than other kids for school failure. We know who they are. We’ve known this for decades (poor, black or brown boys, little to no adult support at home, bad neighborhoods, toxic stress, abused, neglected, and generally stressed out kids).

3. We know that when kids in #2 are given certain types of early and frequent intervention, they are much less likely to fail at school.

4. If they don’t fail at school, they have a hell of a lot better chance at staying out of prison.

5. If they don’t go to prison, they can get jobs. If they work, they pay taxes.

6. If we spend a little money now on those interventions in #3, we will have greater tax revenues in the future.

7. Investing in appropriate educational interventions for stressed out kids literally pays off.

QED, asshats in office. We need intervention for stressed out kids. We need it early. We need it often. We can not wait.

Back to the kid in my opening paragraph. I really hope he comes back. He said he would, but in my experience, it’s about 50/50 with adolescents in trouble who live with folks who aren’t their parents. Great granny looks like she’s about 80. I don’t know that she has the energy to make him get his act together. The kid seemed interested in doing things differently, but also seemed very doubtful about being able to make it happen. I fear we’ve lost this one, mostly due to this dubious expulsion. It’s way past time to stop expulsion.

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Thump thump thump….here come the helicopters (parents)!

One of the great joys of being a professor in a graduate program is watching as young adults grow into creative professionals from being ex-college-students. Every fall, we welcome a group of twelve or so young people, most of whom graduated from their undergraduate programs mere months prior, to campus. Over the next two years, we do the sometimes difficult work of molding them into capable, responsible, and confident beginning therapists. When they leave after graduation, most of them go on to lead rewarding, full, and pro-social lives.

The two years between the arrival of newly-minted B.A. holders and the departure of newly-minted M.S. holders can be tough on everyone involved. Learning to be a competent therapist isn’t easy. The content material; diagnostic categories, pharmacology, neuroscience, counseling skills, theories, and techniques can be overwhelming. Learning to make meaningful connections with total strangers who have lives very different from your own can be exhausting. Developing an identity as both an adult and a professional can be the most difficult aspect of the entire process, especially for 23 year old students whose parents don’t identify as professionals.

The notion of professional identity has been belabored for years in the counseling literature. How do you “be” a counselor? How, if at all, is that person different from who you are at home or with friends? How do you put on this new identity without loosing sight of your former self? Students can struggle mightily with all of these issues, and as much as faculty and supervisors want to help them, it’s a battle each person must face on his or her own.

An interesting cultural turn has recently made this struggle more difficult and less likely to resolve by the time the students leave us. Their parents are now jumping into the graduate program, sometimes at the invitation of the student, but just as often not. Comedians and pundits have talked for years about the silliness of millennial parents over parenting their children to the point of the absurd. Children are no longer left alone to explore the outdoors, even in safe neighborhoods. Parents go to high school dances. They go on graduation trips. They heckle college professors who “give” their child a B or lower.

And now they’re coming to graduate school.

I’ve heard from colleagues around the U.S. that they’re now being contacted by the parents of students about a range of issues, from admissions to internship placement to graduation requirements. Last week, I had my first experience with a parent of a graduate student interfering in the student’s educational experience. I was stunned, to say the least.

And now I’m sad, mostly for the student. The early twenties aren’t easy for most people who are making big transitions from a late adolescent stage, which is drastically extended in modern culture by the university experience, and early adulthood. At the point in their lives when young people most need to wrestle with issues related to independence, freedom (and it’s twin, responsibility), and adult identity, parents are figuratively putting their feet in the doors of development, halting or delaying the process of maturation immeasurably.

I am glad this student’s parents love him/her and are supportive of the journey of higher education. I wonder if they realize that without allowing any struggle at all on the part of the student, they are effectively retarding his/her transition into adulthood. I’m hoping that the parents will learn to allow the child to work through the difficult passages of life with much less interference in the future; I can’t imagine mom or dad calling the boss about a workplace issue, but I guess it’s very possible in the current climate.

It’s my own generation of parents that are crippling their children by eliminating rehearsal for adulthood by removing all obstacles. And it’s us who will have to live with the way we’ve so poorly tended our duties. I’m left hoping not to have to talk to the parents of my doctor before s/he will give me my pills in the old lady’s home.

It’s our mess, X’ers. We need to fix it before it ruins us all.

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The proper care & handling of the highly gifted individual

One of my favorite stories about my Dear Spouse from his mother goes like this: When he was in kindergarten, the teacher expressed concern that since he rarely talked in class, often stared out the window for long periods, and didn’t always do the “work” the other kids were doing, he must be mentally challenged. Mommy knew that this was totally wrong,but instead of telling the teacher that she, herself, was the mental midget in the equation, Mommy called a psychologist friend and had her give DS an IQ test. Turns out, he’s a genius. Mommy 1, teacher 0.

More recently, the youngest child of Dear Spouse has faced his own set of challenges within our beleaguered public school system. Said child, who has just started that horror show called “middle school” is really not a fan of busy work. His philosophy is that if he can make an “A” on the test, why does he need to do a dozen problems for homework every night?

In this age of strained school budgets and high-stakes testing, gifted kids have completely been left by the wayside. Outside of a very few remaining state math and science academies, there is almost no place in the average public school corporation to nurture young smarty pants-es. You’d think with the big push for more STEM graduates, school systems would be stepping on themselves to create the best possible incubators for young geniuses to explore their minds and worlds.

Nope.

In our town, “gifted education” is determined largely by the parents lobbying the superintendent’s office for the inclusion of their young genius, and once added, the young genius is mainly treated to extra homework, not gifted- specific teaching approaches. The upshot is that the “gifted” class is full of doctor’s kids, professor’s kids, and kids of friends of the administration. Some of these students may actually be gifted, but mostly, they’re just privileged. In said “gifted” classes, the mostly White, all upper-middle class students do more homework than their less advantaged peers, and sometimes tackle more advanced subjects. In high school, they can take Advanced Placement courses which can lead to college credits for their work. This is, I fear, the norm in most U.S. school corporations, rather than a tragic aberration.

Truly gifted people are hard to define. It’s like porn, it’s hard to say what it is, but you know it when you see it. Back in the 1990’s, when we had rules about these things, to be placed in the gifted class, a kid had to score 2 standard deviations (about 30 points above the mean) above the average of 100. This means that only about 3% of the entire population of students should fall into that category, and that having rich and loud parents is not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the class.

I am not a fan of IQ tests, for a lot of reasons I’m not going to get into today. However, having some sort of standard aside from mommy’s letters and phone calls to get into the program seems like a better plan. Neither of the older children of Dear Spouse have had Black kids in their “gifted” classes, and certainly, no poor kids. I feel certain that there are smart Black and smart poor kids in our county, but they’re not being identified, which is tragic.

Nearly as tragic is the fact that the kids who are tagged “gifted” are not treated as such. The usual flat, old, worn-out, crappy pedagogy forced onto the masses are used with the “gifted” students, too. Lectures followed by guided practice, then independent practice, and a test, are the only teaching methods I’ve noticed at the middle school in any of the academic subjects. I’m not entirely blaming the teachers, some of them might have other, better ideas that are being squashed by the testing overlords, but that is certainly the only approach I ever see from the parent end of the scope.

Gifted people are not like the rest of us. Those folks who truly make up the 2-3% of the population whose brains are measurably more powerful than the rest of ours need different teaching, different parenting,and different job environments to truly shine. They wilt and wither under the standard teach and test models in education. They are terrible at following “because I said so” rules at home. They quit if the boss makes them go to a lot of pointless meetings.

Not all gifted adults are working for Google and riding around on hover boards or pioneering new brain surgery techniques. A shocking percentage (in my anecdotal experience) are sitting on a couch somewhere, smoking weed and working minimum wage jobs. A whole lot of them are working at slightly better-paying crappy dead-end jobs that come nowhere near challenging their prodigious intellects. It’s a sad fact that many highly gifted adults spent their k-12 careers trying to avoid extra homework, wondering why they had to do all the busywork if they could already understand the concepts, correcting the textbooks (this happened at our house this week), forgetting assignments that don’t interest them, skipping the dullest of classes, and not infrequently, dropping out. Many develop depression and/or anxiety due to the difference in how they view the world and how their family and peers view it.

If gifted kids are really lucky, they get born into families with other gifted folks. For example, Dear Spouse produced three more people as bright as he is. None of them are a breeze to parent, as is usual among the gifted. All three are completely different in temperament and personality, but all three also exhibit common giftedness-related annoying qualities to the parental units. They’re often forgetful of common sense things, like wearing a coat in the winter, don’t notice piles of laundry pooling around them (this might be a boy thing, too), can’t be bothered to do tedious repetitive homework, would rather read a novel in class than listen to a lecture they could give, and can make a hundred arguments against almost any task or chore. Luckily for them, they have parents bright enough to see through the nonsense and obstinate enough to make them do the thing anyway. And these are basically good-natured kids who have all of their basic needs met, and don’t live in an abusive or violent environment.

I’ve worked with several families over my career where this isn’t the case. Either the kid is so much smarter than the parents that s/he runs the house (which leads to anxiety because developmentally it’s wildly inappropriate) or the gifted child is so far different from the rest of the family that s/he grows up feeling disaffected and detached and lonely. Sometimes, these kids find better chosen families as adults and turn out fine. Sometimes, not so much- addiction is a problem of smart people from way back (see: Byron, Lord).

I’m not pretending to have answers to the problem of wasting the minds with the greatest promise in the service of the minds of more modest abilities. There is an entire body of literature about those things. I’m saying we need to DO  what’s in that literature to support and nurture those among us who might not fit the usual mold because they’re extraordinary and precious.

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Jingle Bell Rant, or how not to loose your mind in the next month.

Even as a child, I’ve had a serious mismatch between my reach and my grasp. Every time the family went out to one of those cafeteria type restaurants, my mom chirped at me about having eyes bigger than my stomach. Over the years, I’ve learned exactly how much pie I can actually consume, but I’ve never really learned how many activities I can realistically do in 24 hours.

Just like the kid with too many desserts on her tray, I’m approaching another season of holiday goings-on with a calendar that may just pull down the Google server it inhabits. There are parties (often potlucks I have to cook for), school events (both at my university and the boys’ schools), impending visitors (and of course, the house is a purple wreck), presents to wrap (and mail to my family all over everywhere), and so, why not go to India for two weeks?

You see my problem.

In light of my darling spouse having not yet invented the two-places-at-once machine he’s been promising me for years (along with a pony, a jet pack, and a laser that will zap people in meetings) I’m in the rather appalling position of having to take my own advice.

I hate it when that happens.

It happens kind of a lot.

As a counselor, I have talked with literally gagillions of clients about managing overwhelming schedules. Often, the outcome of our conversation is something like this:

1. Look at your calendar, and without any judgement or internal “shoulds”, find the entries that give you joy to consider. Make a list of them.

2. Look at the same calendar, and again, without any judgement or internal “shoulding”, which entries fill you with dread? Make a list.

3. Compare the lists. Which is longer? Is there a pattern (e.g.: all of the “joy” items involve your kids, the “dread” column is all about your in laws)? Are any of them scheduled on the same day/time?

4. Imagine you go to bed tonight as usual, and overnight, there’s a miracle that only affects your calendar. When you wake up tomorrow, what’s the difference? What’s gone? What’s still there? Has anything multiplied?

5. Go back to the list (making physical contact with paper is really important here, for brain reasons I don’t have time to tell you because I have 3 meetings today, just trust me). If the miracle of the calendar happened, what would happen to the lists?

6. Take each miraculously transformed item one by one and decide what part of the miracle of the calendar you can pull into reality.

  • Some of the dread stuff (for me, this is almost always work related meetings and end of the year reports) may have to happen, but can it happen on another day or time that would be better?
  • Is there any dread stuff you can eliminate or condense? Maybe trade off school meetings with your spouse or see if you can combine two work meetings?
  • How can you expand the joy? This doesn’t have to mean adding yet more stuff to the calendar, but how can you pull that experience into more of your life? For example, if one of your joys is seeing friends at parties (my fave), how can you explore the feeling that gives you, and then add more of it into your life? A few quick emails, calls, or texts everyday can help expand on that joy. This part takes some thinking, and often, some creativity. If you get stuck, I recommend taking some paper and a crayon (yes, a crayon) and doodling about it until your left brain makes an AHA! available to the right brain for you.
  • If you’re still feeling freaked out after all of that, take a page from one of the most celebrated curmudgeons in psychology, Albert Ellis. Ask yourself (in a cranky old Bronx guy accent) What’s the worst that can happen if I don’t….?  If the answer is, I’ll loose my job, you probably have to suck it up and do the thing. If the answer is, I won’t be seen as perfect by all my neighbors and acquaintances, you can skip it.

Most importantly of all, don’t try and measure up, even to your own internal standards of perfection. Honestly, there is no such thing as the “right” way to cope with the festive season. Sometimes, that makes it harder to find the balance point, because it’s one of those things everyone has to figure out on his or her own. Here’s the take home: When you are a little old person, what do you want to remember when you reflect on the holidays? Focus on that. Maybe make a doodle about it, or a collage or a sculpture, or a sand tray. As Mrs. Parker used to say, “Time doth flit, oh shit”. Fill it from the joy column.

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How to win at parent-teacher conferences.

Since I spent a decade of my life as an elementary school counselor, you’d think that attending parent-teacher conferences on the parent side of the table would be a cake walk. You would be wrong. Regardless of which side of the table you’re on, these things often have one tragic flaw: sometimes, someone on the teacher side has a personality that better suits him or her for work as a hermit. Or maybe an HR rep for the Spanish Inquisition (I’ve met my share of terrible parents, too, but that’s a different story).

So, when faced with the Teacher Who Will Not Retire/Leave/Stop torturing children using my tax dollars to gorge him/herself, a few tools can be handy to have (I don’t mean bring a hammer to the meeting,  but it can be tempting).

We had such a meeting for Boy 3 yesterday. He’s a sixth grader, which is a terrible thing to be.

3 has cruised through his academic career to date mainly on his adorableness and inherit genius. When confronted about his frequent mid-day naps in first grade, he gave his teacher one of these looks: http://hero.wikia.com/wiki/File:Puss_in_Boots_Eyes.jpg

And she let him nap in class.

SO, he gets to middle school with the expectation that he can continue to charm his way along, not turn in any work, ace the tests, and be perfectly fine. We tried to warn him that middle school teachers are somewhat less susceptible to kitten eyes than elementary teachers, but we’re adults and therefore unwise in the ways of the youths.

We requested the meeting because 3 is making C/D/Fs in all of his classes, in spite of the kitten eyes and acing the tests. He apparently hasn’t turned in a homework page in weeks- he does the work, he just doesn’t turn it in. Somewhere, there is a dragon sitting on a huge pile of homework, generated but not turned in by, 1 and 3.

Anyway, his father and I turn up at the appointed hour to see what we can do about this mess. 3 does not want to repeat a grade, and he knows he won’t touch an x box until he’s 30 if he doesn’t get it together pretty fast. I had requested/demanded nicely that 3 also attend the meeting, which puzzled the evil teacher, but they fetched him anyway.

To open the meeting, one of the teachers (none of whom we’d met before) reads a list covering 2 lined pages of sins and maladroit actions of 3. 3, in his defense, sat and listened, turning very pale but not using the Eyes.

I then broke in and requested that we open the meeting by telling what 3 is doing well.

This was hard for the Evil Teacher. The other 3 easily came up with how smart he is, how friendly he is to other kids, how he can make A+ on tests, etc. Evil Teacher began with the yes buts. I detest the yes-buts. They are the heart and soul of passive-aggressive nonsense and are frequently the underlying cause of relationship problems. She starts with, “Well, now 3 is a smart boy, WHEN he decides to use it”.

I managed to supress an urge to bang either my own or Evil Teacher’s head on the desk. Instead, I summoned my Skillz and said, “You kind of backed into that one. What can you tell us that is going WELL?” Blink. Blink. One of the other teachers said something nice, and we moved on.

At this point, I pulled out paper and began making notes. When I was a counselor at a  school, I had forms for this purpose. When teachers don’t use them, I kind of know the meeting is really about shaming the child and telling the parents they suck rather than actually solving the problem. Few educators will admit this, but it’s true. Teachers, counselors, principals, etc who really want to help you will stick to a problem solving tactic and will almost always make notes.

On my improvised form, I write, “Date, Present, Identified Problems, Identified Solutions, Person Responsible, Follow Up Plan”. This is not rocket science, people. It’s very basic common sense stuff, but it really helps focus the meeting and often keeps Evil Ones from derailing the process and turning it into bitch-and-moan hour.

From here, it was a bit of an effort to corral Evil Teacher’s mission to shame 3 with her condescending remarks about both his observable behaviors (which are appropriate to discuss here) and his global self as a human (which is not). Fortunately, the other teachers are all good eggs and were able to identify very specific things 3 needs to do in order to earn better grades in their classes without condescending to him or making global inferences about him self. This was helpful.

At the end of the hour, I had a list of three problems and four solutions. Everyone in the room had some responsibility for the success of the plan (which is crucial), even though 3 himself had the lion’s share, which is appropriate because it’s his grade. When I got home, I scanned the notes into the computer and emailed them to all of the teachers and gave 3 my copy so he can keep it in his binder (it’s currently on the dining room table, but we’re making baby steps).

As we were leaving, Evil Teacher said, “It’s always nice to meet parents who care”. This is one of the most toxic things teachers can ever believe about parents. It’s charged with all sorts of race/class/gender judgments and indicates a very low opinion of humans in general.

I was so proud of myself for not throttling her, I can’t even tell you how much.

3 and I had a nice chat on the way home from study tables (he’s now staying after school 3 days a week until he’s on honor roll). He didn’t say it in so many words, but I think he was very grateful that the meeting was about things he can actually fix and not about shaming him for who he is. When I think about the damage done every day around the world by teachers like the Evil One, I get serious heartburn. Let’s focus on some solutions, people. There is a right way to handle these conferences.