WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Quality Summer Learning In Action: Encouraging Dancers to Create and Learn

Kids DancingAbout 20 tweens pile into the unassuming studio space of their ballet school in mid-July. There are no frills here. The waiting area is small and a bit disheveled; the cinder block building has seen its share of life. But look closer: there’s magic inside.

The dancers are not exactly sure what to expect from this week of “choreography camp,” but are glad to be there and ready for anything. Starting from nothing, in five days they will create a 20-minute ballet for family and friends. The director says she has it easy this week because the kids do all the work. The dance choreography might be the most straightforward part; they are also charged with music selection, costume and set design, hair and makeup. They first choose which story they will perform, selecting Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, perhaps knowing on some level that the fun and magic of the story will parallel their own experience that week.

As a parent, I watched the final performance (criss-cross applesauce on the floor) with a huge smile on my face, amazed to see what these kids could accomplish in a week--without many resources beyond, of course, the staff’s and their own creativity, skill, and knowledge. I tapped my toe to the jazzy music they selected, laughed at the Oompa-Loompa’s pigtails and freckles, and the squirrels’ (who separate out the “bad nuts”) tails constructed out of cardboard tubes and old nylons, and was impressed by the level of dance, particularly of the older girls.

As a research associate of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, I watched with a more serious eye, knowing that there were many best practices here in the room that could be shared with the larger field. What made the program seem so magical? How could the director, along with several other staff members, keep the youth so happy, relaxed, and engaged all week and guide them to create something wonderful?

The answer is simple: They do it by using many of the research-based quality practices that we know work, and are measured by field-tested tools (the APT Observation Tool, for example).

Activities were of a high quality and included:

  • Youth choice and decision making – Each decision was made by the students, so the ultimate product was theirs.
  • Project-based learning – The activities were all part of an ongoing project (the production of a ballet), designed to promote specific skills and concepts over time.
  • Opportunities for collaboration – Youth were organized into groups based on ability and age, and worked together toward a common goal.
  • Challenging activities – The week’s activities all provided challenges and stimulated thinking as youth learned and applied new skills and solved problems.

Staff were of a high quality. The director has a master’s degree in education and decades of experience teaching youth, and the assistant director is mid-way through her master’s degree in counseling. Leadership development, which helps youth and at the same time sustains quality staff, has always been built in; the small dancers hold the even smaller dancers’ hands at performances, older dancers assist the younger ones in classes, and the director offers a more formal leadership program, thus creating well-trained staff. In fact, the staff assisting at this week’s camp were former students.

But it’s what they do that counts. They:

  • Built positive relationships and supported individual youth by engaging in friendly conversation with youth, encouraging individual youth as they worked on their own goals, and listening actively and patiently.
  • Promoted youth engagement by being enthusiastic, actively engaging in the activities with youth, and helping youth think through problems themselves rather than just offering answers. They also engaged youth in reflection and feedback. The director even sneakily – and skillfully – used the time at the performance while waiting for each expected guest to arrive to engage the dancers in a discussion about what surprised them, what had been hard, and what they had learned.

At the end of the final performance, the dancers took a big bow and soaked in the well-earned applause. Was it really magic I witnessed, or simply high-quality out-of-school time programming in action? I think both – aren’t they the same thing, after all? Like any good trick, it only looks like magic.

Elizabeth Starr, M.Ed., is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women since 2007. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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Five Ways to Support Social and Emotional Learning with Children’s Books

Collage of children's book covers that are mentioned in this article.The fifth-grader’s voice was full of emotion as he shouted, “That’s not fair! What a mean thing to do!”

He wasn’t upset about an event on the playground, or on the school bus. This student was reacting to an incident described in a picture book entitled Yoon and the Jade Bracelet, by Helen Recorvits. As other students chimed in, the teacher took the opportunity to facilitate a discussion about peer mistreatment, how it feels to be left out, and the role of bystanders. Students expressed genuine concern for Yoon, the main character in the story. Throughout this time of authentic connection to each other and the story, the teacher and his students focused on some key social and emotional skills, such as recognizing and naming feelings, perspective-taking, and empathy. The combination of the book, the teacher, and the children created the equivalent of an electrical current that energized an authentic conversation about how people choose to treat each other.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies the following social competency skills as keys to success in school and beyond: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness/empathy, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Social and emotional learning (SEL) skills can be taught to children in schools through programs such as Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women, which uses children’s literature as a vital part of its curriculum.

Whether books are shared in a classroom, a public library, or a living room, there are some specific ways that educators and caregivers can leverage the emotional connection between children and literature to reinforce SEL skills, including empathy. Some people may make a New Year’s resolution to read more books; I encourage us all to include children in this goal. Here are five ways to support SEL skills through children’s literature:

1. Help children build their feelings vocabulary.

The most basic building block for social competency is self-awareness, being able to recognize and name your emotions. Sharing picture books that highlight a range of emotions, such as Lots of Feelings, by Shelley Rotner, or Yesterday I Had the Blues, by Jeron Ashford Frame, helps children expand their feelings vocabulary and recognize that it’s normal to have many different feelings, including negative ones.

2. Model and reinforce self-management strategies.

It’s important for children to know that they can learn some ways to calm down when they are upset. Books such as Sometimes I‘m Bombaloo, by Rachel Vail, or Mouse was Mad, by Linda Urban, illustrate effective self-management strategies. As you read aloud stories like these, share your own experiences with challenging feelings and describe your coping strategies. Encourage children to find strategies that work for them.

3. Choose books with diverse content.

Emily Style, a co-founder of the National SEED Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women, has written about how curriculum serves as both mirrors and windows for students. Sharing literature that is culturally diverse ensures that all children can see themselves reflected in books, and can see beyond their own world and experiences. Encourage children to explore the perspective of characters who are different from themselves in order to build their capacity for empathy. Books such as the Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke, or Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, can dispel stereotypes and pave the way for building positive relationships and making responsible decisions about how we treat each other.

4. Use an interactive approach.

Megan Dowd Lambert, author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to shake up storytime and get kids talking about what they see, emphasizes the importance of “reading with children as opposed to reading to them.”

Lambert suggests asking open-ended questions, such as: “What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that?” Open-ended questions also help children connect to their experiences and feelings. For example, you might ask: “How do you think the character feels? What are some things that make you feel angry? (scared, upset, happy, etc.) or, “What might you have done differently if you were this character?” To help children develop consequential-thinking skills, ask them to predict what might happen when a character behaves a certain way or makes a particular choice.

5. Choose books children can connect with.

Anyone who has read with one child, or a group of children knows that literature engages both the heart and the mind. Pairing the right book with a child, and helping her explore personal connections to the story completes the circuit to power up social and emotional learning. For inspiration, get started by looking at Open Circle’s list of children’s books connected to SEL.

Peg Sawyer is a trainer and coach at Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women, that provides a unique, evidence-based social and emotional learning program for grades K-5.

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Preventing Depression in Young People

Preventing Depression in Young People

This policy brief originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2016 Research & Action Report from the Wellesley Centers for Women as part of the multi-media series Advancing the Status of Women & Girls, Families & Communities: Policy Recommendations for the Next U.S. President.


depressionpreventionDepression is Prevalent but Prevention Programs Are Limited

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide—it is the most common psychiatric disorder in the U.S., and is particularly common among lower income populations, and among women beginning in adolescence. The average age of onset for depression is 15, and about 20 percent of all people will have experienced an episode of depression by the end of adolescence. Youth depression is associated with a host of negative and long-term consequences, including poorer school performance, difficult peer and family relationships, increased risk of substance abuse, and poorer functional outcomes in adulthood. Of particular note is the connection between youth depression and suicide. Although not all people who commit suicide were depressed at the time, depression and suicidal behavior are indeed linked. Suicide is a tremendous problem in the U.S. and is the second leading cause of death among American adolescents.

Although depression is among the most treatable of all mental illnesses, and although we have evidence-based treatment approaches for depressed youth, the reality is that only about half of all depressed children and adolescents ever receive treatment, and only about half of those who do receive treatment actually improve as a result. Nearly all of those who recover from depression will experience a subsequent depressive episode within a few years. Specifically, 40 percent of youth who have experienced a past episode of depression will relapse within two years, and 75 percent will relapse within five years. This means that a typical 15 year-old who develops an episode of depression, if she is fortunate enough to receive treatment and benefit from it, will experience another depressive episode while she is graduating from high school and transitioning to adulthood.

Although nearly one in five young people experience an episode of depression by the end of adolescence, treatment protocols for youth depression only help about half of those they target, and relapse is common and debilitating. Funding for depression prevention efforts is limited, and preventive programs are difficult to access.

Promising Prevention Efforts

Youth depression is a problem of major proportions, affecting millions of children and families and interfering with children’s social, emotional, and academic functioning. Although evidence-based treatments for youth depression have been found to work well, treatment resources often are difficult to access. Most adolescents who recover experience relapse, and the long-term consequences of youth depression are significant.

Recently, promising research has suggested that depression is among the most preventable of major mental illnesses. We now know of strategies that work to prevent youth depression, including providing cognitive behavioral interventions to adolescents at high risk and helping youth to strengthen social relationships. Based on this research, many European colleagues now encourage a focus on preventive efforts for youth at risk for depression. Although funders and policymakers in the U.S. support preventive efforts for medical concerns, such as healthy eating and exercise to address heart disease, prevention, unfortunately, is often overlooked in mental health. Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners should focus attention on identifying youth at risk for depression, providing evidence-based preventive interventions to at-risk youth and families, and assisting at-risk youth in accessing preventive and/or treatment resources, as needed.

PreventingDepressionApproaches & Recommendations

Recommendations for enhancing a focus on the prevention of youth depression include:

  • Increase use of depression prevention interventions by increasing funding for research. Although several depression prevention interventions have been found to decrease the onset of depressive symptoms or disorders among at-risk youth, such programs are still not readily available in community-based mental health settings, and many practitioners do not know how to implement evidence-based protocols. More funding is needed for large-scale effectiveness trials that examine ways of disseminating evidence-based interventions in real-world settings and for large-scale trials that compare the efficacy of different evidence-based programs for different populations.
  • Attend to family processes that influence depression risk and that promote depression prevention. Research suggests that parental depression is a significant risk factor for depression onset in youth, and that family processes both maintain and may help alleviate depression. Policymakers, funders, and practitioners must attend to the important role of families in identifying and supporting youth at risk for depression who are appropriate for preventive efforts. In addition, interventions to prevent youth depression may benefit from a focus on enhancing family understanding of youth depression, improving parenting skills, and also on addressing parental depressive symptoms that may affect the efficacy of interventions targeting at-risk youth.
  • Integrate youth depression prevention efforts into places where youth are most readily accessed. Efforts to prevent youth medical concerns are an established focus of public health strategies, resulting in, for example, vaccinations from physicians and auditory screenings Integrate youth depression prevention efforts into places where youth are most readily accessed. Efforts to prevent youth medical concerns are an established focus of public health strategies, resulting in, for example, vaccinations from physicians and auditory screenings at school. Unfortunately, routine screening for depression and suicide risk is generally overlooked both in primary care and in schools, although these are the places that youth are most readily accessed and serviced. Policymakers, funders, and practitioners must support additional training for school and medical personnel in identifying at-risk youth, evaluating youth for mental health concerns, and connecting youth to appropriate mental health services. Additionally, research is needed to evaluate primary care and school-based depression prevention interventions, so that, when at-risk adolescents are identified, evidence-based depression prevention services are readily available in locations that are comfortable and accessible to those in need.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women as well as the director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

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Why Relationships Matter

relationships matter blog imageWhy Relationships Matter

 by Kamilah Drummond-Forrester

Relationships are essential to fostering equity and excellence in our schools and classrooms. Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are one of the vehicles that can be used to establish genuine, caring relationships throughout school communities. SEL programs that have a whole-school implementation model and are purposeful about infusing culturally-responsive curricula further enhance the positive impact on schools. It is proven that we learn best when we are in environments in which we feel cared for and connected to others. Research has demonstrated that children who have a positive connection with at least one adult stay in school longer, make better decisions, and have better life outcomes overall. Let’s be honest, when adults work in environments in which they have positive connections and feel cared for and valued, they perform better and their employers experience less turnover. Positive relationships are good for all of us.

As we research and think about our educational system and the gaps that exist for black and brown children, SEL programming has to be a critical component of the discussion. SEL programs, such as Open Circle, which include a whole-school implementation model, not only provide curricula for SEL skill building for students but also include professional development for SEL skill building and consciousness raising for all adults in the school community and at home.

The guiding principles on which Open Circle is grounded provide an importantblogpullquoteRelationshipsMatter framework for thinking about teaching and learning. The importance of relationships to cognitive and social growth, the importance of teaching SEL skills, and the importance of adults as models are the critical underpinnings of our work.

The importance of relationships to cognitive and social growth

Educators have known for a long time that “[children] don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” - Theodore Roosevelt When we show genuine care and concern for our students and their experiences, inside and outside of the classroom, and when we take the time to truly get to know and understand them, we are creating fertile ground for learning and engagement to take place.

The importance of teaching SEL skills

In my work as an educator in the Suffolk County House of Correction one of the things that struck me was how insightful and intelligent my students were. When I would ask them about their experiences in school, one theme that emerged was that being challenged by academics was not the thing that pulled them off a more positive path, but rather feeling ill-equipped to navigate and manage the social dynamics of school, family and community led to choices and situations that resulted in their involvement with the criminal justice system. Taking time out weekly to focus on SEL skill building is critical to equipping our students with the necessary competencies to cope with, manage, and rise above the daily challenges many face.

The importance of adults as models

The old adage of “do as I say and not as I do” has never been true. Parents and adults who work with children can attest that no matter what you say, children will more likely mimic what they see you do. This fact is important for caregivers and it is equally as important for educators and administrators. Taking time to invest in the quality of adult relationships and the modeling of those positive relationships is critical to this work. The student community mimics the adult community in many ways. If there is derision, gossiping, unfriendliness or devaluing among the adults, the same will hold true for the students. These ways of being permeate the space and gives it an unwelcoming, unsafe, and tense feel. Honoring our strengths, being curious and open to learn about our differences, and being honest about what we know and don’t know all contribute to the development and nurturing of positive relationships among the adult community.

By offering training for administrators, specialists and support staff, grade-level teachers, and families, Open Circle is recognizing that it does in fact “take a village.”

So as we continue the dialogue on how to fill the gaps in educational opportunity and achievement let’s not forget to start with the basics. Relationships, positive and genuine relationships, set the foundation for creating schools and classrooms in which all students and educators feel safe, cared for and engaged to do their best learning and teaching. Social and emotional programming is a means to this end. Open Circle offers the most comprehensive means of getting there.

Kamilah Drummond-Forrester joined Open Circle as a Program Manager in June 2013. She is the co-founder of the Dorchester Collegiate Academy Charter School (DCA) in Boston, MA. Kamilah served as the school’s first board chair and later became the Director of Wellness to work directly with students. She oversaw the social and emotional programming at the school. This included developing the social and emotional curriculum, coordinating services with outside mental health and social service agencies, as well as working directly with students and families.

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Healthy Young People Despite a World Filled With Violence

LFortunaBlogHealthy Young People Despite a World Filled With Violence

The following article was posted May 4, 2015 on the Medicine and Faith blog of Lisa Fortuna, M.D., and is re-posted with permission by the author. She is pictured a pledge to be a Partner in Peace during the Mother's Day Walk for Peace in Boston, MA.

Because I am a priest and a psychiatrist I spend a lot of time discerning the meaning of things. The past two weeks have been filled with a lot of news stories about discord, violence and hate. A lot of this very bad news has to do with racism, divisions, greed, and power. I only have to bring up Ferguson, Baltimore or ISIS and you know the kinds of stories I am speaking of. These things bring me to two questions: How do we raise up our young people to be healthy in body, mind and spirit in a world that upholds such violence? How does our world contribute to the development of anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress in our young people?

Today one of my parishioners asked me, “What can we do to help our kids make it in this world?”

It is an important and challenging question that I have had to try to answer either at the coffee hour after church service, in my consultation office when seeing a patient and their parents, or when investigating a new intervention that might help young people with depression or trauma.

blogpullquoteHealthyYoungPeopleAlthough these are all big questions, I have at least learned a few things over the years through my clinical practice, research and ministry about what helps young people stay healthy (or what helps them heal if needed) in mind, body and spirit. Here are my top five learnings of what helps young people:

1. Having someone in their life that is absolutely crazy about them, loves them unconditionally and lets them know it.

2. Having a sense of community and true belonging.

3. Developing compassion for self and others.

4. Connecting to ones heritage and traditions while also embracing new ideas and diversity (Includes bi-culturalism, multiculturalism).

5. Developing a sense of a greater good and commitment to something bigger than oneself (spirituality, justice, connecting across differences).

I have found that these five core areas are very important for emotional health and development.

Here are some links of some examples of youth living into these principles and adults supporting them on the journey:


La Puerta Abierta/ The Open Door—a program for clinical excellence and belonging for immigrant youth

 

What are some of the ways we can engender these types of experiences and opportunities for growth and healing in the lives of our young people?

LFortunaBlog2Lisa Fortuna, M.D. is a psychiatrist triple board certified in general psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine. A research collaborator with scholars at the Wellesley Centers for Women, she is the medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry services for the Boston Medical Center, faculty at Boston University Medical School, and an Episcopal Priest serving as pastor in a Latino congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

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"R" is for Resonance

resonanceblog"R" is for Resonance

The Four R’s – Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic, and Resonance

Do you have someone in your life that “gets” you? I do. My friend Angel and I see each other every six weeks or so but each time we get together I am struck by the resonance we share, the ability to jump back into a conversation as if no time has passed. How does that happen? When I heard about the discovery of mirror neurons I thought I had found the answer.

First discovered by accident in 1998 by scientists studying arm movements in monkeys, mirror neurons were originally described as individual, specialized brain cells with the sole purpose to help us “get” or read other people. They were thought to be unique among brain cells because of their ability to multitask—registering actions, feelings and sensations all in a single specialized cell. I loved this! My heart already believed that relationships were central to health and wellness and these mirror neurons could be the proof my brain needed to believe that humans are “hardwired to connect.” But, even as I was sharing the news with others, I felt a little worried. How could Angel and I click so easily when I struggled with many other relationships in my life?

Also, when I looked at my friends and family, I noticed I was not alone. Everyone I know has some variability in his or her capacity to read others and to be read. So, if we’re hardwired to connect, what explains the variability? Is people-reading something we learn how to do or are we blessed with the hardware to automatically understand what others close to us are doing or feeling? Turns out, it’s both.

As babies, we are born with reflexes to connect with others. Watch an infant for a few minutes and you can see the vast amount of energy devoted to connection. The wiggling and writhing invested in finding the nipple of a full breast, the waving of a tiny, unsteady hand in search of a finger to wrap around or the neck to grab hold of. These reflexes are a pretty good start for connection, but, are not nuanced enough to allow an infant to “read the room.” A baby may become fussy when held by a distracted, tense mother but could not “know” the mother arrived home from work exhausted and irritable after being up all night working on an important presentation.

Researchers are now describing a mirror neuron system rather than unique mirror neurons. This is a more complex, efficient, and coordinated wiring of existing of neural pathways that communicate the actions feelings, and sensations of those around us. It is the way these pathways become interconnected through experience that really counts in clicking with others and making sense of relationships. Imitation plays a key role. Each of us literally “knows” other people by mimicking them internally. This mimicking is concrete. If I watch you walk toward the door with your hand out, I “spontaneously and automatically “know you are going to open the door and leave. I do not need to ask. blogpullquoteResonanceDeep in my brain, the area in the prefrontal cortex that plans and executes the physical movement of walking out the door is being stimulated. Though I am not moving, the same nerve cells are firing. When you touch the door and pull your hand away quickly and shake it a little I “know” that the door was quite hot from the pounding sunshine on the glass. My somatosensory cortex that creates sensations fires and my hand feels a low-grade sense of heat and smoothness from the window window. That is added to the immediate mix of how I am reading your experience. And finally, you walk through the door and a large smile crosses your face as you fall into the arms of a loved one. In my brain and body the nerve signal has now traveled through the insula into my “feeling centers” in my body and I feel a similar joy and lightness. I “know” you are with someone you love. All of this has happened in the blink of an eye and without you sharing any of your experience with me. My brain and body uses itself as a template to have a shared experience with you and the closer our life experiences internally have been, the more resonant we feel.

But imitating is not the whole story. Grown-ups must name feelings and experiences accurately when you are little so that when you name them in others later they match. You fall down and skin your knee and your parent says, “Ouch, that hurts.” The pain in your knee and the tears running down your face are paired with being hurt. A friend knocks over your block tower and the energy surging through your body and the tension in your eyebrows and face gets paired with a teacher saying, “You feel angry because Tom knocked over your blocks.” It seems like an easy process except that many people don’t know what feelings feel like in their body. Even as adults, well-meaning parents can mislabel a child’s experience and potentially confuse the development of the mirror neuron system.

Here’s an example. Ten years ago my pre-school aged twins and I were in a terrifying accident. I had driven the one-mile route to school mindlessly for a couple of years. On this day, as we approached a four-way intersection, another van turned left and hit us almost head on. Both vans were totaled and immediately chaos ensued. The front airbags in our car deployed filling up most of the front seat and giving off a pungent, rubber smell; the engine hissed and sent water and steam spraying into the air. Within minutes the local rescue teams arrived en masse—fire, police, and ambulance sped to the accident with blaring sirens and lights. In the midst of the overstimulation, I crawled into the back seat and looked directly into the trusting, scared faces of my children and said, “Everything is fine”—a delusional thought if ever I had one. My son looked right back at me and said, “Everything is not fine, this is a bad accident. “ A reality check for sure, I immediately backtracked and agreed that it was a bad accident and that it was scary.

We develop these pathways for accurate reading in the context of being accurately read by others! When I tell my children everything is fine at the same time their bodies are registering that things are dangerous, their developing people-reading pathways are getting a mixed message. Done often enough, as is often the case with childhood trauma or domestic violence, and the person’s mirror neuron system wires in an inaccurate and confusing way. They drift into isolation as their capacity for resonance is diminished.

A cultural belief that human development should be towards increased levels of separation and individuation can create a mirror neuron system that is not accurate. If I am busy “hiding my feelings” from you for fear of being seen as weak or needy, or if I believe that being impacted by another person’s feelings or experiences diminishes my strength, then chances are my mirror neuron system is not getting the stimulation needed to develop the essential human capacity of resonating and reading others and being read. And the impact of this is far reaching. Human beings are built to be healthiest in mind and body when in strong connections with others. Connection and cooperation are part of the everyday lives of most people and a strong mirror neuron system is essential in each and every one of life’s negotiations. It is high time that we add the fourth “R” to the basic skills taught in education—reading, ‘riting, ’rithmetic, and resonance!

Amy Banks, M.D., has devoted her career to understanding the neurobiology of relationships. She was an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is the Director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI) at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the author with Leigh Ann Hirschman of the forthcoming book, Four Ways to Click: Rewire your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (Penguin Random House).

 

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Let's Talk about Sex

middleschoolkidsLet’s Talk about Sex

October is Let’s Talk Month, part of a national campaign to encourage families to talk with teens about sex and relationships. In March 2013, I shared tips on how parents can talk with their teens about sex. Today, I’m going to pass on some reasons why talking with middle schoolers about sex is important and how this may support younger teens’ health.

Here’s what’s important to know:

Almost one-third of teens have sex by 9th grade. A recent nationwide study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 28% of girls and 32% of boys reported having had sex by the 9th grade.

Early sex puts teens at risk for poor school and health outcomes. Teens who have sex at an early age are more likely to drop out of school, get a sexually transmitted infection, or have an unintended pregnancy than teens who wait until they are older to have sex.

Talking with teens about sex can make a difference. Parents talking with teens about sex and relationships can make it more likely that teens will wait to have sex and, when they do have sex, that they will use protection.

blogpullquoteTalkaboutSexIt’s important to talk with teens before they have sex. Research tells us that it is critical for teens to learn about sexual issues from a trusted adult before they have sex.

Here's what we learned from our evaluation of Get Real,* a comprehensive middle school sex education program:

    Sex education that supports parent-teen conversations about sex and relationships can help to delay sex. In schools where the Get Real sex education program was taught, 16% fewer boys and 15% fewer girls had sex compared to boys and girls in schools that taught sex education as usual. This means that sex education during middle school can support teens’ sexual health.

    Don’t forget to talk with your sons about sex! Boys who completed Get Real family activities in the 6th grade—which focused on a wide range of issues, from anatomy to relationship values—were more likely to delay sex in 8th grade than boys who didn’t complete them. Many parents talk with their daughters about sex earlier and more often than their sons. Talking with sons early and often can help to support their sexual health, too.

Communication is key! Let’s Talk!

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She co-directed an evaluation of a middle school sex education curriculum and leads a project investigating sex communication in the nuclear family and beyond and the implications for health interventions.

* Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works is a middle school program, developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, that delivers accurate, age-appropriate information and emphasizes healthy relationship skills and family involvement.

 

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Suicide Prevention: The Depression Link

depressedteenSuicide Prevention: The Depression Link

This is a repost from an article originally published on this blog September 6, 2013.

National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14) is a time to both raise awareness of suicide as a national public health issue, and to think critically about how suicide can be prevented. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents (Hoyert & Xu, 2012), and, in 2011, nearly 16 percent of adolescents in the United States reported seriously considering suicide. When thinking about preventing adolescent suicide, it is important to consider factors that increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, such as depression. Suicidal thinking is a symptom of depression, and over half of the adolescents who completed suicide had a mood disorder at the time (Bridge, Goldstein & Brent, 2006; Nock et al., 2013). Fortunately, a number of researchers have developed empirically-supported interventions to prevent the onset of depression in teens, and prevention efforts that target adolescents at risk for depression may ultimately prove helpful in preventing suicidal behaviors as well. During this national week of suicide prevention awareness, it is important to recognize the link between depressive illness and suicide in youth, and the promising role of depression prevention in potentially preventing suicidal behavior.

Most of us bring our children to see their doctors annually, because prevention-focused well-child care is a cornerstone of pediatric practice. Unfortunately, prevention is generally not part of the equation when it comes to youth mental health. With limited health care dollars and limited mental health resources available, clinicians and policymakers tend to focus on alleviating mental health concerns once they arise. Yet research suggests that many young people do NOT get treatment for mental health concerns once they arise, and mental health concerns, such as depression, are associated not only with suicide risk, but also with long-term adverse impacts on educational attainment, relationship functioning, risk of substance abuse, and future depressive episodes, even among those who receive treatment. Moreover, of those teens who DO receive treatment for depression, only about half fully recover and, among those who do recover, relapse is quite common.

blogpullquoteDepressionLinkTreating youth depression once it emerges may be much more distressing, and much less effective, than identifying early symptoms of illness and treating them before they develop into a full-blown disorder. Prevention approaches have the potential to reach a large number of adolescents, and may be more acceptable than treatment because services can be rendered in non-clinical settings (e.g., schools, primary care settings), and do not require adolescents to identify themselves as ill.

So how can adolescent depression be prevented? The core of many depression prevention programs is resilience. Not all adolescents with risk factors for depression develop the disorder; the ones who do not develop depression are resilient, which means they have the emotional skills and/or the social supports to “bounce back” from adversity. Many programs to prevent adolescent depression are designed to teach coping and emotional regulation skills, and/or to strengthen supportive relationships, in order to provide youth at elevated risk with the tools they need to be resilient.

Research on the prevention of youth depression is quite encouraging! For example, in our longitudinal, multi-site study of adolescents at risk for depression, we found that teens who participated in a group cognitive-behavioral prevention program were less likely to experience a depressive disorder at nine- (Garber et al., 2009) and 32- (Beardslee et al., in press) months follow-up, relative to at-risk teens who were assigned to a treatment-as-usual control group. Likewise, our colleagues working on the Penn Resiliency Project have found that children and adolescents who participate in their school-based cognitive-behavioral program are less likely to experience depressive symptoms than are children and adolescents assigned to control conditions. Similarly, in a study of Interpersonal Psychotherapy approaches to preventing youth depression, Young and colleagues found that teens who participated in a skills-based intervention targeting interpersonal role disputes, role transitions and interpersonal deficits reported fewer depressive symptoms at six-months follow-up than teens who were assigned to a school counseling control group.

Here at WCW, we are currently studying the efficacy of a primary-care, Internet-based depression-prevention program for adolescents who are at risk for the development of depression, based on a past history of depression and/or current symptoms of depressive disorder. While many of these youth depression prevention programs are still being evaluated in randomized controlled research trials, early results suggest that prevention programs may work. It seems we can indeed provide teens with strategies that they can use over time, as they encounter stress and challenging life events, so that they are able to stay healthy and avoid the onset of significant mental health concerns.

What are the risks for depression in adolescents? When should you be worried about your teen? When we talk about risks for depression, we often think in terms of specific factors (i.e., factors identified through empirical research to be associated specifically with increased risk for youth depression) and nonspecific factors (i.e., factors that are associated with increased risk for a range of disorders, including depression). Specific risk factors for adolescent depression include having low self-esteem, being female, developing a negative body image, low social support, a negative cognitive style, and ineffective coping. The strongest specific risk factor for the development of depression, above and beyond these other factors, is having a parent with depressive illness. In fact, offspring of depressed parents are at about a two- to four-fold increased risk of developing depressive disorders, relative to children of parents without depression. Nonspecific risk factors that also increase risk of youth depression include poverty, exposure to violence, social isolation, child maltreatment, and family breakup.

Although the presence of these risk factors is associated with an increased risk for youth depression, as noted above, many at-risk children are resilient and never develop a depressive disorder. Having supportive adults present, strong family relationships, strong peer relationships, coping skills, and skills in emotion regulation all can contribute to resiliency. Even depressed parents can promote resilience in their teens by encouraging teens to engage in outside activities, maintain supportive relationships, and recognize themselves as separate from issues and concerns that are affecting other family members.

How can you recognize signs and symptoms of depression in your child, and how can you help? Depressed teens are often sad or irritable, and may exhibit a range of additional symptoms, such as withdrawal from friends and usual activities, sleep difficulties (i.e., difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time), somatic complaints (i.e., headaches, stomach aches), poor school performance, self-critical talk, changes in eating patterns, difficulty sitting still, and may start writing or thinking about death. If you are concerned about your teen, then express your concern openly and honestly. Tell your child that you care, and that you want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if he is experiencing suicidal thoughts – asking will NOT make him contemplate suicide or take his own life. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician for assistance and referrals. Let your child know that treatments are available, and that you are going to work together to get your child the help she needs.

National Suicide Prevention Week is an opportune time to consider the many ways that suicidal thoughts and actions can be combated, including preventing the onset of depression in adolescents, and getting teens help if they are depressed already.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Weersing, V.R., Clarke, G.N., Porta, G., Hollon, S.D., Gladstone, T.R.G., Gallop, R., Lynch, F.L., Iyengar, S., DeBar, L., & Garber, J. (in press). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: Longer-term effects. Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

Bridge, J. A., Goldstein, T. R., & Brent, D. A. (2006). Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(3‐4), 372-394.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(4), 1-168.

Garber, J., Clarke, G.N., Weersing, V.R., Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Gladstone, T.R.G., DeBar, L.L., Lynch, F.L., D’Angelo, E., Hollon, S.D., Shamseddeen, W., & Iyengar, S. (2009). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301, 2215-2224.

Hoyert, D. L., & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Report, 61(6), 1-65.

Nock, M. K., Green, J. G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K. A., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicidal behavior among adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-310.  

 

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Facebook: Friend or Foe

fbthumbsFacebook: Friend or Foe

This blog post is reproduced with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, NJ. It was first published on the Human Capital Blog.

If you were stressed out and wanted to vent to your friends about it, how would you let them know? Would you pick up the phone and talk, or text? Would you set up time to grab coffee or go for a brisk walk? Or would you post to Facebook why your day just couldn’t get any worse?

As I logged into the recent RWJF/NPR/Harvard School of Public Health-sponsored Stress in America discussion, I identified with the panelists who were dispelling stereotypes about “highly stressed” individuals being high-level executives or those at the top of the ladder. Instead of finding work-related stress as a top concern, as is often played out in the media and popular culture, the researchers were finding that individuals with health concerns, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals were experiencing the highest levels of stress. The panelists talked about the importance of qualities like resiliency and the ability to turn multiple, competing stressors into productive challenges to overcome, and the integral role of communities in shaping, buffering, and/or exacerbating stress.

We often consider our communities as living, working, playing in close physical proximity. But what about the online spaces? What about our opt-in networked friendship circles ... our cyber-audience who sign up to read our posts with mundane observations, proud revelations, and the occasional embarrassing photos?

blogpullquoteFacebookMedia coverage about social media has not been kind—often linking its use with cyberbullying, sexual predators, and depression or loneliness. But recent scholarship on new media demonstrates that interpersonal communication, online and offline, plays a vital role in integrating people into their communities by helping them build support, maintain ties, and promote trust. Social media is often used to escape from the pressures of life and alter moods, to secure an audience for self-disclosures, and to widen social networks and increase social capital. The Pew Research Internet Project found that adult Facebook users are more trusting than others, have more close, core ties with their social networks, and receive more social support than non-users.

So what if we asked adolescents the same question: “If you were having a bad day and wanted to let your friends know about it, how would you let them know?”

In our current research on media and identity, we purposively sampled more than 2,300 individuals aged 12 to 25 from 47 states and 26 countries. They took an online survey that investigated how vulnerable populations (such as racial/ethnic minorities, women, adolescents, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, those with low social status) have used the Internet and social media in healthy and unhealthy ways, particularly during times of stress. We wanted to determine how and why supportive communities could exist in personal online networks that could increase one’s resiliency in the face of challenges.

We found that when young people want to talk about a bad day, they mainly preferred in-person (69%), texting (69%), or phone call (51%) methods to reach out for help. Social media was not utilized as often to talk about stressful times—with Facebook (29%) being more popular than Twitter (7%) overall.

The Stress in America poll results found that 19 percent of adults use social media more than usual during stressful times. In our study, adolescents were significantly more likely to post to Facebook networks about their bad days than emerging adults aged 18 to 25, which can indicate that there are generational differences in how new media can be supportive.

African American participants (19%) chose Twitter to report to their networks about a bad day more often, whereas Asian Americans (40%) used Facebook more often than people of any other race/ethnicity during times of stress.

A surprisingly large number of young people (under age 25) reported that they write blogs, from a low of 37 percent of Hispanic respondents to a high of 60 percent of Asian Americans respondents. Incidentally, individuals who have ever written a blog are more likely to report being unhappy or sad than non-bloggers. Perhaps being more public online about private matters helps adolescents to know that they are not alone in their battles with stress.

Further examination of the use of new media may help us develop prevention and intervention programs and tools to guide adolescents, their parents, educators, and health care workers, and to remind ourselves how the adolescent and emerging adult years can be stressful. Perhaps logging onto one’s Facebook community and jotting down one’s thoughts could be just the right kind of coping mechanism whenever the need arises.

Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and a former National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral scholar. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee, examining the potential of social media networks to promote resiliency in vulnerable populations.

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Open Circle Training Goes to Uganda

uganda3Open Circle Training Goes to Uganda

Two Open Circle trainers from the Open Circle Program, Jen Dirga, MSW, and Sallie Dunning, Ed.M., traveled to Uganda in May 2014 to train teachers, youth, and parents from six rural primary schools and communities through the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation. The goal of the training was to improve the relationships between the students, teachers, and parents, and to improve academic performance.

After the training, the teachers noted in their evaluation forms that this is the first training on social and emotional learning they had ever attended.

Dirga and Dunning reflect on their experiences with Open Circle training in Uganda:

uganda1Jen Dirga

Our trainings in Amor Village were amazing. It was hard to imagine ways to transfer the practices and concepts of Open Circle to Eastern Uganda. Yet, the experience highlighted the transformative power of positive relationships. Throughout our trainings there was an openness to mutually learn from each other. This is a community impacted with overcrowded schools (200 students to 1 teacher with very few resources), extreme poverty, and pervasive illness – and they welcomed opportunities to transfer Open Circle concepts and practices to support their children.

Sallie Dunning and I went to Amor Village with a training design based on the goals identified by Beatrice Achieng Nas, BSC, a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) in the Fall of 2013. Beatrice set the stage for our learning through her community work that effectively supports education and social change within her village.

Our training focused on practices that both promote and support positive relationships. We also highlighted specific interpersonal and life skills.

I think Sallie and I both learned how universally transferable so many of these skills are and the impact that they can have in supporting an entire community.

 

uganda2Sallie Dunning

Living in this small rural community in Eastern Uganda for two weeks was a life-changing experience for me. Riddled with disease (75% of the population is HIV positive), and poverty, the people had an astounding capacity for joy and generosity. (Two families gave me a precious chicken as a sign of gratitude for just being there.) Though isolated from “civilization” (having no electricity, mail, or running water), and used to their own ways, they were surprisingly open to our ideas about cultivating positive relationships, speaking up for girls’ education, and solving problems. Teachers, who have class sizes between 100-200 students with no pencils, paper, books, or materials, enjoyed trying out new teaching practices that might empower their students. Parents became convinced that they were their children’s most important teacher (a new concept for them), and vowed to try to be better models. All of this was possible because of the innovating grass roots work done by Beatrice Achieng Nas, a leader of that village who did work here at WCW last year.

Open Circle is a leading provider of evidence-based curriculum and professional development for social and emotional learning (SEL) in Kindergarten through Grade 5 in the United States.

Since its inception in 1987, Open Circle has reached over two million children and trained more than 13,000 educators. Open Circle is currently used in over 300 schools in more than 100 urban, suburban and rural communities across the United States. Open Circle is a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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Middle School Expanded Learning Opportunities: 20 Years and Growing

middleschoolmonthMiddle School Expanded Learning Opportunities: 20 Years and Growing

A few weeks ago we recognized Middle School Month--dedicated to re-emphasizing the importance of middle school programming and the unique developmental needs of adolescents. The National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) has worked with many concerned educators and policy makers over the years to ensure that middle school children have quality opportunities.

Eric Schwarz, CEO and founder of Citizen Schools, has been one of the most dynamic partners in his work. Recently, he announced plans to step down from his role as the organization that serves low-income, at-risk middle school students approaches its twentieth anniversary. Back in the mid 1990s, specialized afterschool programs for middle school youth were virtually unknown. But Eric had a vision that paved the way for a not only a new area of programming, but a body of knowledge and research that stressed the importance of giving low-income middle school students the skills and access to learning experiences most middle class students and their families took for granted.

Eric and I met at NIOST in 1994, shortly before he launched Citizen Schools with his partner Ned Rimer. I remember clearly our conversation about the special needs of middle school students, often overlooked by leaders in the field who were mostly focused on elementary-level children. At the time, we looked to the leadership of The Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the few research organizations that focused on young adolescents. Their guidance on the needs specific to this age group helped to shape the early work of those of us who recognized this gap in the developing field of afterschool. They included*:

  • Physical Activity
    Competence and Achievement
    Self-Definition
    Creative Expression
    Positive Social Interactions with Peers and Adults
    Structure and Clear Limits
    Meaningful Participation

 

In 2014, an industry of programs and services exist that focus on middle school youth during their out-of-school time and expanded learning day. NIOST, now in its thirty-fifth year, has expanded its repertoire of scholarship, research-based tools and training to include middle school- (and high school-) level programs and continues to focus its work on the changing needs and concerns of youth ages, 5-18 years. In part we can thank visionaries like Eric Schwarz for his leadership and advocacy. Eric, best of luck in your future endeavors!

Ellen Gannett, M.Ed. is director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College.

*Planning Programs for Young Adolescents, Center for Early Adolescence, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1987

 

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A Case of Structural Racism

MIblogimageA Case of Structural Racism

For five years, from 2008 until 2013, I studied how Mississippi implements its child care certificates for low-income women who received the certificates as a welfare benefit. I brought to the work a racial lens and decades of studying the political right as a movement. I found a profound impact of both race and right-wing politics in my study of the Mississippi welfare bureaucracy and how low-income women and their children are treated. It has been a challenging and enlightening five years of travel, reading, conducting interviews, and mining historical and contemporary narratives.

Although Mississippi is majority white (60.6 % vs. 37.2 % Black in 2008), its poor are disproportionately African American (55% of low income households). Its overall poverty rate is 28%. Black people’s median earnings in Mississippi are about $10,000 less than whites. Approximately 13.9 % of children live below half of the poverty level, the highest percentage in the country. According to KidsCount, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Mississippi’s overall rank in child well-being is 50th out of 50 states.

Because many white people in Mississippi think of welfare as a “Black” program, its image is doubly stigmatized--by the negative stereotype of welfare recipients and by the widespread belief that recipients are African American. No Mississippi governor in recent memory has made the state’s low income people a priority. As a result, recipients of welfare services are viewed with suspicion and hostility.

Usually, some 6,000 children are on the waiting list to receive a child care certificate. This is no longer a matter of explicitly racial policies, but is a product of de facto racism in the implementation of Mississippi’s subsidized child care. By creating daunting barriers for low-income mothers in accessing subsidies for child care, Mississippi is disproportionately leaving their children behind.

blogpullquoteStructuralRacismIn Mississippi, advocacy for low-income women and children tends to occur only in the non-profit and non-governmental sectors, which are both relatively under-resourced in comparison with other states. No adequately powerful counter-voice exists to offset the public tone of hostility toward low-income women. Further, conscious and sub-conscious racism is so entrenched in Mississippi that even policies that would appear to address racial discrimination turn out to have no impact. Mississippi could be said to be “Ground Zero” for structural racism. So intractable is this form of racism at all class levels that the elimination of Jim Crow laws and practices has failed to eliminate structural racism. Neglect of poor children of color in Mississippi is but one outcome.

A symptom of the Mississippi Department of Human Services’ attitude toward welfare recipients is its latest scheme to fingerprint mothers each time they drop off their children at child care and when they pick them up. Only welfare recipients will have to use the fingerprint scanner. This scheme has cost Mississippi $8 million dollars and is intended to “reduce fraud and thus make more child care certificates available to others.” Child care providers and certificate recipients mobilized in opposition to the program. It has been temporarily stopped by the courts, but only because MDHS has been unable to complete the research the court required of it.

Mississippi is not alone in its pervasive structural racism. In every state in the country, race plays a role in the opportunities available to children and the likelihood of success for families. The perception by whites of the motivations of low-income people has been heavily influenced by a rightist campaign to demonize the poor as “dependent” and failing to take personal responsibility for their lives. This campaign has amounted to a war on the poor. Mississippi is but a shining example of that war.

For those of us who believe that improvement in the lives of Mississippians depends on empowerment of Black and white Mississippians from the ground up, child care is a crucial component. We learn more every year about the development of a child’s brain and what an enormous difference it can make to the future life of a child if that development is nurtured and expanded in the earliest years. Child care is not the only key to breaking through the barriers standing in the way of low-income Mississippians, but high quality early child care is an intervention that holds the possibility of changing outcomes for low-income children.

Jean Hardisty, Ph.D. is a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. This blog draws upon the report, Between A Rock and A Hard Place: Race and Child Care in Mississippi.

 

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Teen Dating Violence Awareness & Prevention

TDVblogTeen Dating Violence Awareness & Prevention

Last year, when President Barack Obama proclaimed February Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, he noted that an estimated one in ten teens will be hurt intentionally by someone they are dating and “while this type of abuse cuts across lines of age and gender, young women are disproportionately affected by both dating violence and sexual assault.” His Administration has committed many resources to addressing the problem. The Violence Against Women Act, reauthorized in 2013 by the U.S. Congress, funds enforcement of gender-based violence laws, provides victim services, and created new federal crimes involving interstate violence against women. The 1 is 2 Many campaign launched by Vice President Joe Biden aims to reduce sexual violence against those who experience the assaults at the highest rates--young women ages 16-24. And recently, a report from the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President analyzed rape and sexual assault data, including the staggering number of sexual assaults on campuses, and issued a renewed call to action. Teen dating violence between adolescents who are “dating,” “going together,” “hanging out,” or however the adolescents label it, is a serious problem—from public health, education, and legal perspectives—with injuries, poorer mental/physical health, more ‘high-risk’/deviant behavior, and increased school avoidance being experienced and reported.

One concern I have is that federal policies, as evidenced by Congressional funding priorities, may not consistently address systemic issues that contribute to teen dating violence. For example, the federal government has invested generously in “healthy relationship” programs and initiatives that promote marriage as a cure-all for poor women and girls but have no requirement for evaluation, while also funding research that takes a gender-neutral approach to examining the problem.1 Data shows that males and females do not engage in mutual, reciprocal, and equivalent violence—so why wouldn’t there be a need to examine the gendered components of any intimate partner violence?

My research for over 30 years has focused on peer sexual harassment in schools, a form of gender violence, which I consider the training grounds for domestic violence. In fact, sexual harassment may also serve ablogpullquoteTeenDatingViolences a precursor to teen dating violence. Schools—where most young people meet, hang out, and develop patterns of social interactions—may be training grounds for domestic violence because behaviors conducted in public may provide license to proceed in private.

Since 2005, my more recent research with Bruce Taylor, of NORC, funded by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, has been in urban middle schools, with the youngest sample of 6th and 7th graders ever studied in a scientific, randomly controlled research project on teen dating violence. Our interventions, both school-wide and in the classroom, emphasize articulating and claiming one’s boundaries and personal space; never do we discuss “healthy relationships”—a perspective that I find subjective and judgmental yet seems to operate as the default approach to preventing teen dating violence. Happily, our data shows that our interventions are effective and we are currently expanding them to 8th graders and testing for longitudinal effects.

This year, as we raise awareness about teen dating violence and offer scientific approaches to prevention, we must continue to invest in evidence-based and evaluated programs with rigorous research that inform truly effective public policies.

Nan Stein, Ed.D. is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College where she directs several national research projects on sexual harassment, and gender violence. Shifting Boundaries, her research project with Bruce Taylor, is an ongoing, multi-level study funded by the National Institute of Justice to evaluate the effectiveness of grade-differentiated dating violence and sexual harassment prevention curricula.

1.)Healthy_Marriage_and_Responsible_Fatherhood_Grantees.pdf. January 23, 2013. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Family Assistance, an Office of the Administration for Children and Families. Retrieved February 3, 2014, from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/resource/healthy-marriage-grantees

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The value of sports for career launch

Olympic-RingsThe value of sports for career launch

This will be the first time that female athletes are allowed to compete in ski jumping at the Olympics so it’s fitting that the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia open Thursday on the heels of National Girls and Women in Sports Day February 5th.

The satisfaction goes beyond the glow of victory after a long battle because access for female ski jumpers represents progress in the broader quest for gender equity. As in this case, athletics often carry meaning beyond the competition itself.

Sport is both a tool in the quest for political, social, and economic equality and a glass that magnifies the failings of fairness on a societal level. What happens on the field affects and reflects the world off the field (or the slope)-- and vice versa. The cascading events of the 1970s -- the rise of the women’s movement, passage of Title IX, and expanding sport and career opportunities-- express the relationship.

This is important, but well-trod territory. So three of us at WCW asked another question: How does this dynamic actually play out for the individual athlete?

Sports matter off the field, but precisely how do they matter? A study published in 2012 that drew data from polling alumni suggests a connection between college sports participation and higher earnings a decade after graduation. That data relies on a look back by those who had successfully navigated a career launch.

blogpullquoteValueofSportsBut how do recruiters on the front-end value a varsity credential? Does sports participation in college, for example, offer access to enter a corporate career?

Given the widespread assumption that sports are a steppingstone to business success, we wanted to know: What qualities do recruiters look for in new graduates, how are sports experiences evaluated, and do athletes have an advantage when being screened for an initial interview? Do male and female, black and white candidates fare equally?

We asked human resource professionals experienced in recruitment to complete a detailed online survey in which they selected from a list of eight leadership attributes the top four they seek in candidates, rate candidate profiles based on those qualities, and rank-order candidates to invite for an interview.

Recruiters received randomly generated profiles that varied sex (signaled by first name), race (signaled by African-American–related extra-curricular activity or not), and leadership experience (athletic or non-athletic). Extracurricular activities were varied to reflect leadership experience in a non-athletic activity (such as Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper or representative to the Board of Trustees) or varsity athletic experience as either a top basketball or track athlete. Candidates had similar GPAs, majors, career interests, and research and work experiences.

Our findings showed that among the 828 recruiters who completed the survey, 72 percent identified “ability to work in a team” as among the top four attributes. Recruiters rated athletes over non-athletes on the ability to work in a team and being results-driven. This held true regardless of a candidate’s sex or the rater’s sex or involvement with athletics as a leisure pursuit. At the same time, athletes received lower ratings than non-athletes on organizational skills, critical thinking, follow-through on tasks, and transferable skills.

The results were surprising and interesting on a few levels. First, it was striking that female athletes got the same “credit” for participation as their male counterparts. Second, even as raters saw athletes as being the classic “team player” and driven to produce results, they seemed unaware of organization skills college athletes need to juggle academics with daily practice, travel, etc. Third, while critical thinking skills may not be explicitly required of athletes, the lower rating suggests a “dumb jock” stereotype at play given that all candidates had similar majors and GPAs. Raters also did not appear to recognize that the follow-through of athletic training and preparation, like a range of other skills, had transferrable value outside of sport.

What does this mean for the individual athlete?

The message is that even though it has nearly become a cliché for managers and corporate leaders to extoll the virtues of athletic participation, the recruiters who serve as gatekeepers screening resumes don’t see it – beyond the obvious “teamwork” credential. Our findings challenge athletes to better articulate just what they are learning on the sport field and how that can be translated off the field. Athletes also must address recruiter beliefs that they struggle with organization and critical thinking. They must also be explicit in describing how positive skills they hone in sport will be useful in the workplace.

Overall, there is notable good news. We found that female athletes received equal consideration as their male counterparts from raters selecting candidates for an interview. Yet, if the experience of playing a college sport builds skills that are valuable in the workplace, our results show that both male and female college athletes must better communicate that message to recruiters, who may have spent their college years in the stands.

Let the Games begin!

This article was contributed by Laura Pappano, Sumru Erkut, Ph.D. and Allison Tracy, Ph.D. Pappano, writer-in-residence at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) at Wellesley College, is an experienced journalist who writes about education and gender equity issues in sports. Research by Erkut, WCW associate director and senior research scientist, encompasses variations in the course of child and adult development. Tracy is a Senior Research Scientist and Methodologist at WCW, where she provides technical expertise in a wide range of statistical techniques used in the social sciences.

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Bullying Prevention Starts with Adults

bullyingblogBullying Prevention Starts with Adults

Policies, procedures, and protocols for bullying prevention and intervention are now a requirement for most schools across the country. Yet policies that are developed and implemented in isolation are insufficient to address the challenges of bullying behavior. It is also critical to create a school culture and climate of communication, collaboration, and trust where children and adults feel safe and supported to speak up about bullying.

Building a safe environment is a key element to preventing and addressing bullying in schools. New research from ChildTrends found that bullying prevention programs that use a whole-school approach to foster a safe and caring school climate – by training all adults to model and reinforce positive behavior and anti-bullying messages – were generally found to be effective.

The Open Circle Curriculum, an evidence-based social and emotional learning program, focuses on both proactively developing children’s social and emotional skills (like calming down, speaking up, and problem solving) and building a school community where children and adults feel safe, cared for and engaged in learning. We encourage a unique whole-school approach that includes training all adults in the school community – teachers, administrators, counselors, support staff, and families – to learn, model, and reinforce pro-social skills throughout the school day and at home.

blogpullquoteBullyingPreventionStudents are always watching. They are watching adults at their best and they are particularly watching adults when they are in conflict. While emphasis and expectations of behavior is often placed on the students, adults in schools should remember to take a step back and look at themselves, their relationships, and the behaviors students see them model. It’s imperative that adult communities in schools reflect the same expectations of behavior that we have for students. Otherwise a climate may develop where students and adults may not feel safe to identify, report, and effectively address bullying behavior.

When a consistent culture and climate is created both on the student and the adult level, bullying prevention efforts will be strengthened along with creating the best possible environment for learning.

Nancy MacKay, B.A., and Nova Biro, M.B.A. are Co-directors of Open Circle, a leading provider of evidence-based curriculum and professional development for social and emotional learning (SEL) in Kindergarten through Grade 5. Open Circle, a program of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, is at the end of its 25th anniversary year.

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Thursday, 28 November 2013 12:50
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Poverty and the Rural African Girl

BNasPovertyBlogSocial Justice Dialogue: Eradicating Poverty

Poverty and the Rural African Girl

When people have limited choices, have no secure directions to follow, and are held back by insurmountable barriers, they are bound to remain in a situation of stagnancy, including poverty. Poverty is experienced physically and spiritually. It is too often the plight of the rural African girl—generations of whom have lived with little food, no clean water in poor housing, the SocialJusticeDialogueBox New target of domestic violence and rape, forced into early marriage for the bride price, with little (if any) schooling, no sex education, and no basic supplies for daily care and health. Their dreams are limited by not knowing their potential--they have very few resources, mentors nor models to help them.

A typical day of a rural girl who does attend school starts with fetching water and going to the garden to work before walking miles to school. Most children will go hungry at school; there may be no chairs or even books. They walk home in the evening, after gathering wood and picking greens that they will cook over a fire for the family dinner. There is no light to study by, no beds on which to sleep. Older girls cannot afford sanitary supplies and they use rags and leaves instead, often skipping school when they menstruate. In rural Uganda, secondary and higher education for girls is impossible without outside assistance. There are numerous financial demands for families—food, soap, kerosene, clothing, and medication—education is not considered essential. Because of this, many adolescent girls are often married off as their parents cannot afford educating them beyond the free primary education in public schools. There is much illiteracy throughout the communities and the cycle of poverty continues generation after generation.

blogpullquoteRuralAfricanGirlI was fortunate, however, that my parents were not desperate for the bride price when I was a growing up. I could have been sold for a cow or a goat. Instead, at age 14, when I was feeling hopeless and working as a barmaid, a wonderful family in Kentucky (who knew one of my cousins from when they had done missionary work years earlier) enabled my return to school by paying my school fees for five years. I went on to earn my college degree before working with organizations that were striving to improve the lives of poor families in Africa.

I then turned my attention to Africa’s rural girl. I founded the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation because I wanted to directly involve, empower, and benefit rural communities in Eastern Uganda through education, mentorship, trainings, and advocacy. I wanted to develop partnerships for social, cultural, and economic development. I knew that secondary, tertiary, and vocational education could break the unending cycle of poverty. Girls who are educated can become role models for their siblings and communities. They can learn new ways of growing crops. They can understand how to keep their families healthy. They may develop new skills to bring income to their families.

Working with individuals and partners from around the world, the Foundation helps rural girls in Africa and others in their communities, to break out of poverty. We are supporting girls’ education by connecting them with sponsors and mentors from across the globe. We facilitate a letter exchange program between students from the rural schools and students from other corners of the world. We teach the parents, grandparents, and communities about the importance of education. We train parents in crop production, micro-financing, and making hand crafts. We also encourage our partners and volunteers from across the globe to not just support our work but to visit. Two years since our founding, we have hosted in rural Ugandan communities 16 volunteers from the United States, Australia, and Europe—last week, five visited from England. The visits are meaningful and wonderful learning experiences for everyone.

More girls need such support. We have been able to send 67 girls to secondary school—these are 67 less girls who have been married off at young ages. More than 1,600 have expressed interest in our program. While there is still so much to do, we know that in collaboration with the international community, our grassroots communities can help break cycles of poverty and create cycles of opportunity through education. I believe everybody has the potential to live a better life. Given the opportunity, education and motivation, anyone can become someone inspiring. Nobody is a nobody, everybody is somebody.

Beatrice Achieng Nas, BSC, a Community Solutions Program Fellow through the International Research & Exchanges Board, is a visiting scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the fall 2013 semester. She worked previously with Build Africa Uganda before founding the Pearl Community Empowerment Foundation.

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Suicide Prevention: The Depression Link

depressedteenSuicide Prevention: The Depression Link

National Suicide Prevention Week (September 8-14) is a time to both raise awareness of suicide as a national public health issue, and to think critically about how suicide can be prevented. In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents (Hoyert & Xu, 2012), and, in 2011, nearly 16 percent of adolescents in the United States reported seriously considering suicide. When thinking about preventing adolescent suicide, it is important to consider factors that increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, such as depression. Suicidal thinking is a symptom of depression, and over half of the adolescents who completed suicide had a mood disorder at the time (Bridge, Goldstein & Brent, 2006; Nock et al., 2013). Fortunately, a number of researchers have developed empirically-supported interventions to prevent the onset of depression in teens, and prevention efforts that target adolescents at risk for depression may ultimately prove helpful in preventing suicidal behaviors as well. During this national week of suicide prevention awareness, it is important to recognize the link between depressive illness and suicide in youth, and the promising role of depression prevention in potentially preventing suicidal behavior.

Most of us bring our children to see their doctors annually, because prevention-focused well-child care is a cornerstone of pediatric practice. Unfortunately, prevention is generally not part of the equation when it comes to youth mental health. With limited health care dollars and limited mental health resources available, clinicians and policymakers tend to focus on alleviating mental health concerns once they arise. Yet research suggests that many young people do NOT get treatment for mental health concerns once they arise, and mental health concerns, such as depression, are associated not only with suicide risk, but also with long-term adverse impacts on educational attainment, relationship functioning, risk of substance abuse, and future depressive episodes, even among those who receive treatment. Moreover, of those teens who DO receive treatment for depression, only about half fully recover and, among those who do recover, relapse is quite common.

blogpullquoteDepressionLinkTreating youth depression once it emerges may be much more distressing, and much less effective, than identifying early symptoms of illness and treating them before they develop into a full-blown disorder. Prevention approaches have the potential to reach a large number of adolescents, and may be more acceptable than treatment because services can be rendered in non-clinical settings (e.g., schools, primary care settings), and do not require adolescents to identify themselves as ill.

So how can adolescent depression be prevented? The core of many depression prevention programs is resilience. Not all adolescents with risk factors for depression develop the disorder; the ones who do not develop depression are resilient, which means they have the emotional skills and/or the social supports to “bounce back” from adversity. Many programs to prevent adolescent depression are designed to teach coping and emotional regulation skills, and/or to strengthen supportive relationships, in order to provide youth at elevated risk with the tools they need to be resilient.

Research on the prevention of youth depression is quite encouraging! For example, in our longitudinal, multi-site study of adolescents at risk for depression, we found that teens who participated in a group cognitive-behavioral prevention program were less likely to experience a depressive disorder at nine- (Garber et al., 2009) and 32- (Beardslee et al., in press) months follow-up, relative to at-risk teens who were assigned to a treatment-as-usual control group. Likewise, our colleagues working on the Penn Resiliency Project have found that children and adolescents who participate in their school-based cognitive-behavioral program are less likely to experience depressive symptoms than are children and adolescents assigned to control conditions. Similarly, in a study of Interpersonal Psychotherapy approaches to preventing youth depression, Young and colleagues found that teens who participated in a skills-based intervention targeting interpersonal role disputes, role transitions and interpersonal deficits reported fewer depressive symptoms at six-months follow-up than teens who were assigned to a school counseling control group.

Here at WCW, we are currently studying the efficacy of a primary-care, Internet-based depression-prevention program for adolescents who are at risk for the development of depression, based on a past history of depression and/or current symptoms of depressive disorder. While many of these youth depression prevention programs are still being evaluated in randomized controlled research trials, early results suggest that prevention programs may work. It seems we can indeed provide teens with strategies that they can use over time, as they encounter stress and challenging life events, so that they are able to stay healthy and avoid the onset of significant mental health concerns.

What are the risks for depression in adolescents? When should you be worried about your teen? When we talk about risks for depression, we often think in terms of specific factors (i.e., factors identified through empirical research to be associated specifically with increased risk for youth depression) and nonspecific factors (i.e., factors that are associated with increased risk for a range of disorders, including depression). Specific risk factors for adolescent depression include having low self-esteem, being female, developing a negative body image, low social support, a negative cognitive style, and ineffective coping. The strongest specific risk factor for the development of depression, above and beyond these other factors, is having a parent with depressive illness. In fact, offspring of depressed parents are at about a two- to four-fold increased risk of developing depressive disorders, relative to children of parents without depression. Nonspecific risk factors that also increase risk of youth depression include poverty, exposure to violence, social isolation, child maltreatment, and family breakup.

Although the presence of these risk factors is associated with an increased risk for youth depression, as noted above, many at-risk children are resilient and never develop a depressive disorder. Having supportive adults present, strong family relationships, strong peer relationships, coping skills, and skills in emotion regulation all can contribute to resiliency. Even depressed parents can promote resilience in their teens by encouraging teens to engage in outside activities, maintain supportive relationships, and recognize themselves as separate from issues and concerns that are affecting other family members.

How can you recognize signs and symptoms of depression in your child, and how can you help? Depressed teens are often sad or irritable, and may exhibit a range of additional symptoms, such as withdrawal from friends and usual activities, sleep difficulties (i.e., difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time), somatic complaints (i.e., headaches, stomach aches), poor school performance, self-critical talk, changes in eating patterns, difficulty sitting still, and may start writing or thinking about death. If you are concerned about your teen, then express your concern openly and honestly. Tell your child that you care, and that you want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask your child if he is experiencing suicidal thoughts – asking will NOT make him contemplate suicide or take his own life. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician for assistance and referrals. Let your child know that treatments are available, and that you are going to work together to get your child the help she needs.

National Suicide Prevention Week is an opportune time to consider the many ways that suicidal thoughts and actions can be combated, including preventing the onset of depression in adolescents, and getting teens help if they are depressed already.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Scientist and Director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. The Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Weersing, V.R., Clarke, G.N., Porta, G., Hollon, S.D., Gladstone, T.R.G., Gallop, R., Lynch, F.L., Iyengar, S., DeBar, L., & Garber, J. (in press). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: Longer-term effects. Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.

Bridge, J. A., Goldstein, T. R., & Brent, D. A. (2006). Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(3‐4), 372-394.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(4), 1-168.

Garber, J., Clarke, G.N., Weersing, V.R., Beardslee, W.R., Brent, D.A., Gladstone, T.R.G., DeBar, L.L., Lynch, F.L., D’Angelo, E., Hollon, S.D., Shamseddeen, W., & Iyengar, S. (2009). Prevention of depression in at-risk adolescents: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301, 2215-2224.

Hoyert, D. L., & Xu, J. (2012). Deaths: preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Report, 61(6), 1-65.

Nock, M. K., Green, J. G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K. A., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicidal behavior among adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-310.  

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Is Grit Another Name for Resiliency?

cooktutorIs Grit Another Name for Resiliency?

Over the past few months, in my role as the Chair of the American Camp Association’s (ACA) Task Force on Non-Cognitive Skills, I have been immersed in the research and popular literature on what journalist-author Paul Tough calls “non-cognitive skills.” Numerous discussions, papers, books, and organizations have surfaced that are creating a great deal of confusion about what we are actually talking about. From Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, who uses the term “grit,” to Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making, to the Partnership for 21st Century skills, to CASEL's work on Social and Emotional Learning, I have become overwhelmed with the attention this issue is currently receiving. But what exactly are we all talking about? Is nomenclature getting in the way of a shared understanding of the “it”? Several labels or terms have been used (grit, life skills, applied skills, executive function, emotional intelligence, non cognitive skills, soft skills, character skills, leadership skills, and on, and on) but are they all same?

And more importantly are we missing something? Are we overlooking the importance of relationships and caring adults? Willis Bright, past director of the Youth Program at Lilly Endowment and a member of the ACA Task Force, speaks about “navigational and interpretative skills” thus adults helping youth to develop a moral compass in an increasingly complex society. That got me thinking about the work of Bonnie Benard and her colleagues at Stanford University on Resiliency Research.

blogpullquoteGritAccording to Benard, “we are all born with innate resiliency, with the capacity to develop the traits commonly found in resilient survivors: social competence (responsiveness, cultural flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills, and a sense of humor); problem-solving (planning, help-seeking, critical and creative thinking); autonomy (sense of identity, self-efficacy, self-awareness, task-mastery, and adaptive distancing from negative messages and conditions); and a sense of purpose and belief in a bright future (goal direction, educational aspirations, optimism, faith, and spiritual connectedness)” (Benard, 1991).

But when faced with adversity, these inborn traits may not develop. Benard (1991) Werner (1993) and others have discovered there are “protective factors,” that can help young people develop resilience despite high levels of risk: caring relationships, high expectations and meaningful participation and contribution.

Our work at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time supports the resiliency research. The Afterschool Program Assessment System and its linked outcome tools, SAYO (Survey of Afterschool Youth Outcomes), are based on this framework. Our theory is that afterschool program can be the place where young people can learn social and emotional skills in an environment where caring adults, set high expectations and provide meaningful leadership opportunities for young people.

Despite their similarities, grit emphasizes one's internal resources while de-emphasizing the important external factors that help contributes one's success--something that resiliency theory includes. The APAS system, which is based on this resiliency framework, highlights the importance of supportive adult relationships in the healthy development of youth--something we should keep in mind as we begin a new year of academic and out-of-school-time programming.

Ellen Gannett, M.Ed. is the Director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College where she ensures that research bridges the fields of child care, education, and youth development in order to promote programming that addresses the development of the whole child.

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Unaccompanied Homeless Youth in Massachusetts, what does this mean?

kathyschleyer postpic Unaccompanied Homeless Youth in Massachusetts, what does this mean?


This blog post, by Kathy Schleyer, was entered in the Wheelock College Policy Connection 2013 Student Blogger Contest and earned second place. The original post can be found on the Wheelock College Blog.

It happens to be a snowy day in March and I sit in the comfort of my warm (relatively) house in the suburbs of Boston. I am a middle-aged graduate student at Wheelock College studying contemporary issues of children and families. One of our assignments is to research and report on a personal topic of interest. Professionally, I am the Director of Training at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. I could write extensively on the importance of afterschool for children and youth, but today I must write on another topic.

blogpullquoteUnaccompaniedHomelessYouthA few years ago my daughter, while in college in Connecticut, invited me to a community gathering she helped organize on human trafficking. The purpose of the meeting was to raise awareness of the topic and to encourage attendees to take action to help support young women who are lured or forced into a captive life of servitude or sexual exploitation. The impetus nationwide is to provide supports for the women to decriminalize their actions and to find, prosecute, and penalize the "johns" and pimps. At the time Massachusetts was one of three states without human trafficking legislation.

Today, Massachusetts has legislation in place against human trafficking but it is time to enact new legislation to protect a particularly vulnerable group of young adults who can fall prey to those who would enslave them into a life of sexual exploitation. These youth are called "unaccompanied homeless youth" and are defined as 1) under the age of 25 and 2) not in the physical custody or care of a parent or legal guardian and 3) lacking fixed, regular, and adequate housing. My intent is to draw attention to the importance of passing legislation to support unaccompanied homeless youth to them help avoid mental trauma, dropping out of school, living on the street, or becoming victims of human tracking. The multiple risks faced by homeless youth trying to survive on their own demand solutions that encompass stable housing, access to mental health services, job and skill development, etc. Therefore, legislation or state funding through line item budgeting is needed to enable these wraparound services.

First we must find these young people. An anecdotal phrase that describes one survival mode is "couch surfing." This term refers to youth that move from house to house seeking temporary refuge with help from relatives, friends or strangers. Others live on the street trying to survive by work (hard to get) or petty crime, selling drugs, trading sex for food or money or get caught up in the ravages of prostitution and illegal activities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DESE) estimates that there are approximately 6,000 high school students unaccompanied and homeless. This figure does not include those who have already dropped out of school or older youth aged out of the school system.

A classmate of mine "adopted" a homeless high school senior when her son brought him home one day saying that he had nowhere to live. He stayed for the remainder of the school year and enlisted in the U.S. Army upon graduation. This boy is fortunate- care came to him, but it is estimated by the Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth that 50 high school students were homeless in the same town as this boy that year. It is unlikely many of those adolescents were as lucky.

I am grateful for my warm house and my family. I am so far removed from the experience of homelessness that it is hard for me to picture the day-to-day suffering of those affected. I donate money and I volunteer at a downtown shelter, but that is easy and I always go home to my own bed. Some reports describe the effects of street life as mirroring post-traumatic stress syndrome. We can look to nonprofits and churches to assist but it is time to act legislatively. We have the means to offer help and support through our public institutions and through our policing response. The human trafficking legislation passed in Massachusetts to protect vulnerable children, such as homeless youth, from sexual exploitation is proof of that fact. Giving first responders the ability to safeguard youth rather than arrest them, similar to the human trafficking legislation, is essential. Massachusetts has taken steps in this direction but it must go further with legislation and/or budgeting specifically directed towards unaccompanied homeless youth. I urge you to support the work of the Massachusetts Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Commission in addressing this issue. Visit the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless for more information and steps you can take.

Reference: Homelessness in Massachusetts Public Schools. From http://www.mahomeless.org/images/2011_data_8-12.pdf

Kathy Schleyer is an Educational Studies graduate student at Wheelock College (degree expected December 2013), and the Director of Training at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST). She works to support the professional development of afterschool staff. Her primary focus is on the use of assessment tools to improve program quality and to help youth reach positive outcomes.

 

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Interdependency and Mental Health

Comforting Interdependency and Mental Health

May is National Mental Health Awareness month, a fitting time to be mindful of the suffering caused by mental illness. Even though I am a psychiatrist, working daily with people diagnosed with mental illness, I am stunned by the statistics on the incidence of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Mental Health in any 12 month period, 26.2 percent of adults are diagnosed with a mental illness. That is one in four adults who are experiencing disturbing and often debilitating symptoms--the constant distress of an anxiety disorder, the aching despair of a major depression, the terror of psychosis. The lifetime incidence of mental illness is over 50 percent. These statistics tell us that if you have not been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, someone you know and love has. When you go to work today or even out with friends in the evening, see if you can identify the one in four people who has a mental illness. Don’t be surprised to walk away thinking there are none in your group. Also don’t be surprised to find out that you are wrong.

blogpullquoteInterdependencySo, where are all the people with mental illness? From what I hear in my office, many are hiding and suffering in silence for fear of being stigmatized, pitied, or seen as weak. American, Westernized culture plays a large role in this fear. The pervasive image of an American is a person who is strong, independent, and can “make it” on his or her own. There is no direct media campaign telling people who have a mental illness to stay in the closet, but the chronic cultural myth of the “self made man” acts as a reference point from which we all measure our worth. The more dependent you are on others, the less value you hold. This cultural bias is insidious and contributes to an environment that makes each of us hide our vulnerabilities behind a wall of shame at not being strong enough to manage our day to day lives on our own.

The idea that we are stronger on our own is destructive, dangerous, and undermines our natural physiology that works best in healthy interdependency. Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Jilek Wolfgang, M.D., M.Sc. reports that people who develop a psychotic illness actually heal faster in a non-Westernized world. A stunning finding given that Western societies are known to have the most educated doctors and best hospitals in the world. So what accounts for the improvement? A lack of stigma. In the West, psychosis or the loss of reality testing is seen as the ultimate failure of individual strength. It is frightening and dangerous. On the other hand, in many parts of Africa, extended family and community reach out and embrace the individual with psychosis rather than fearing or shunning him.

Relational neuroscience offers some explanation for this finding. Researchers at UCLA, Eisenberger and Leiberman, have discovered that the pain of social exclusion is registered in the exact area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus, as the pain from a physical illness or injury. Because humans are meant to function best in healthy human connection, this area of the brain fires an alarm for things that are life threatening. The chronic pain of an acute physical injury or illness can be lethal, but Social Pain Overlap Theory (SPOT Theory) tells us that being socially rejected is every bit as dangerous. When we stigmatize and ostracize people with mental illness we increase their stress levels, decrease their ability to fight illness, and prolong their healing process.  

The range of functioning in the people I treat everyday is tremendous--from CEOs capable of running a company while having a mental illness to individuals on disability unable to work because of severe symptoms. Almost every person I see is hiding their diagnosis from at least one important person in their lives out of fear of the anticipated rejection. In this month of May let’s all open our eyes and our hearts to see and embrace someone with a mental illness and to support those who are suffering knowing full well that statistics show having a mental illness is not an individual failure nor a weakness. Mental illness is, well, an illness and the best hope for a speedy recovery is the support of extended families and friends. This cultural shift from pathological independence to healthy interdependence holds the power to heal many wounds and to improve the lives of all of us who will experience the pain of mental illness.

Amy Banks, M.D. is the director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Over the last ten years at the JBMTI, she has been integrating emerging neuroscience information with relational-cultural theory.

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It's a SNAP: Living on Four Bucks a Day

SNAPfoodChallengeIt's a SNAP: Living on Four Bucks a Day

This blog appeared originally on YWCatalyst blog. Author Peter Biro is the husband of Nova Biro, a participant in LeadBoston, YW Boston’s experiential executive leadership program which explores key equity issues facing Boston. As part of its examination of poverty, LeadBoston 2013 participants undertook the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Challenge (feeding yourself on four dollars a day for one week). To support Nova, the entire Biro family participated in the Challenge to better understand food insecurity. Here, Peter reflects on the experience:

I rarely decline a cappuccino any time of day, and certainly never first thing in the morning, but last Thursday I had no choice. To support my wife Nova, our family went on a diet. We were trying to shave not calories, but dollars: her mission was to complete the “SNAP Challenge” as part of her LeadBoston program, and experience issues of poverty firsthand by limiting our daily food spend to what poor families can afford. That number, per person, is only four dollars a day.  

So, the Thursday morning cappuccino that rang in at $4.25 was not in the budget.

If you are lucky enough never to have thought about the breakdown on four bucks a day, as many reading this have not, you eventually arrive at a few other non-obvious conclusions. First, you have to allocate the $4 among your meals--say, 50 cents for breakfast, 1 dollar for lunch, 2 dollars for dinner, and 50 cents for “other” 50 cents for other is just not a lot. In that world, if someone offers you free food, whatever the kind, you probably take it. Second, as characters in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, about growing up poor in Ireland could tell you, alcohol is a budget-killer. Say your addiction is on the opposite end of the spectrum like mine and you need a cup of coffee. Cheap will do. That’s about $0.25 if you make it yourself.  

The issue in both cases is that the $0.25 has to come from somewhere. So taking your children out for a ice cream or a treat is a non-starter.  
blogpullquoteFourBucksaDay What are some cheap nutritious foods? In no particular order, the Biro family’s diet last week consisted of rice, beans, potatoes, inexpensive meat (specifically split chicken breasts on sale, and stew meat on sale), bananas, eggs, carrots (but you have to peel them yourself--having the factory do the work for you and turn them into baby carrots costs too much), pasta, homemade pancakes, nuts, oatmeal and super cheap granola bars we bought in bulk (more on this later). We bought a small crate of “Clementine” oranges on sale for $6, or $0.20 apiece. We made homemade pizza one night, with dough from scratch costing roughly $0.40, the sauce about $1 and mozzarella at $3, totaling not quite $5 for 2 pizzas, with leftovers for lunch. We did buy fresh broccoli, which is expensive at $0.30 per serving, so we didn’t have much.  Frozen vegetables are usually cheaper, but not always. Lentils are cheap and high-quality calories but we didn’t get those in.  

Greasy tortilla chips are cheap--low quality, to be sure, but cheap. It is true, as has been noted many times by those studying childhood obesity, that two liters of soda (for about $1 on sale) are much cheaper than a half gallon of orange juice (about $3.50 on sale) or milk.  

Besides designer coffee served by a disgruntled barista, other luxuries were out.  Berries. Flank and high-quality steak. Lamb. Brand names. Good apples out of season cost $1.33 each. So, you can eat a granny smith in March, but you have to give something up.  

My daughter Sophie and I typically spend Tuesday afternoons together and share a piece of cake ($4) and bring one home for my wife and other daughter ($4). We knew this had to go. So, last week, Sophie and I split a mini-cupcake for $1.  

We worked over the crumbs for a while. This was a theme all week.

This experience with my daughter really got my attention. My wife and I know how to improvise in the kitchen, and the convenience of leftovers makes them a way of life for us already, so fitting different ingredients into this model didn’t jar us. For Sophie and me to go without our usual dessert was not that big of a deal either, because in truth, we knew we could resume it next week. It was temporary. But poverty is rarely temporary. And on the best day, you can either have a cup of coffee yourself, or give your child a treat, but never both.  

My family adapted. Sophie resiliently offered, “That’s OK dad, I don’t need the big piece anyway.” I checked the daily sales at our local supermarket and, for example, bought a “Five Buck Cluck," a pre-roasted chicken on sale on Thursdays for $5. That’s meat for four of us, plus a little extra, plus the basis to make stock instead of buying broth at $0.80 per can. We used things that we had bought before in bulk--on a per-serving basis, much cheaper. A granola bar from a small box cost $0.40, but from a Costco-sized box, it’s about $0.10.  

But families in poverty, I imagine, cannot adapt this way. They might not have time to check in at  the market every single day. Yes, shopping at Costco saves money in the long run. But if you are poor, it’s not in your neighborhood. How do you get there? How do you have the money upfront to pay for everything? How do you get it back home? Where would you store it? And  you can’t spend, in the form of foregone wages, nearly $22 to make the 3-hour round trip; $22 is food for six days. At the same time, you probably have to shop for food much more frequently, which is a tremendous time burden for people already stretched to the limit.

This made us think about the broader issues.  

Tight food budgets bring the pervasiveness of cheap processed foods into sharp view. I don’t know what happens to the economy if the minimum wage goes up $1. I do know, that an extra $1 equals $40 per week and would increase the food budget of a family of four by almost 35 percent. A huge impact.    

Most importantly, I remember the anxious feeling after exhausting the daily $4. Not hunger pangs--we had full pantries in a warm spacious house in a safe neighborhood. The anxiety was rooted in this: for someone on $4 per day for food, food insecurity is rarely the greatest of their challenges.

Peter Biro is husband of Nova Biro, co-director of Open Circle, a social-emotional learning program for grades K-5, based out of the Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesley College. Biro and her family's food challenge were featured on Yahoo News.

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The Birds, the Bees, and the Stomach Butterflies

teenboydadThe Birds, the Bees, and the Stomach Butterflies

March is Talk with Your Teen about Sex Month. Why talk about sex with our kids?

In her recent talk at Wellesley College, Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, reminded us that parents are the most important source of sex education for their children. National studies agree. When parents talk about sex with their kids, it can help them postpone having sex and make it more likely teens will use protection when they do have sex. Our research at Wellesley Centers for Women found that this is particularly important in delaying sex for boys.

Here are some take-home messages from our own and others’ research on how parents and teens talk about sex and relationships. The quotes are from our interviews with parents of middle school students.

“I’m willing to go there with her (talk about sex), because I know that I had trouble speaking with my mom about it when I was younger. So I know I need to be there and play that role. And if I don’t talk to her about it, she’ll find out on her own, and that’s not the way that I want that to happen.”

Why is it so hard for us to talk to our kids about sex?

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Well this is how your penis works.’ You know? Okay, I’ll try to figure it out and I don’t want to sound stupid in front of the kid.”

- Parents often feel embarrassed and may not know how to start conversations about sex
- Parents don’t know where to get accurate information to share with their kids
- Kids are embarrassed too, but it’s important for them to hear from you
- Once you start (even with a small conversation), it will get easier

How do we do it? Tips on talking with teens about sex

“You’re basically informing them and, you know, letting them know that you’re there. And then you kind of just have to take it as it comes, because you never know what’s going to happen.”

- Figure out what’s important to you and share it with your kids
- Listen to what your kids have to say (or what they may have trouble saying)
- Keep the door open – sometimes the first conversation is just an icebreaker
- Give your kids medically accurate information about sex
- Talk with your kids before they have sex

Who can help?

“He still talks about things that he learned in (sex education) class. He still makes a reference to it when we’re talking about things. One of the funny things that doesn’t happen anymore is any reference to sex, we don’t shy away from it if it does come up. He’s just more accepting that it’s a part of life at this point.”

- Just because you didn’t talk about sex growing up with your own family, doesn’t mean you can’t talk with your own kids about sex
- Even when you’re embarrassed, you can still have good conversations with your teens about sex
- You are not alone

  • o Think about friends and family you trust who can be part of the conversation (e.g., aunts, uncles, older siblings, godparents)

o Find out if your teen has a sex education class at school and ask your teen about it
o Here are some resources for information and support to talk to your teens about sex:

10 tips for parents (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy)

Communicating with Youth: Themes for Parents to Remember (Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts)

Help your teen make healthy choices about sex (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She co-directs an evaluation of a middle school sex education curriculum and leads a project investigating what works and what gets in the way of family communication about sexuality among diverse families.

 

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Helping Children Deal with Traumatic Events

holdinghandsHelping Children Deal with Traumatic Events

A message from Open Circle, the elementary school social emotional learning (SEL) program at the Wellesley Centers for Women:

"In light of the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, we are writing to share some resources that school communities might find helpful at this time. This tragedy touches all of us, both near and far, regardless of whether we are educators, parents or students. Open Circle would like to offer its assistance during this difficult time by helping schools support students who, understandably, may have questions or concerns in response to this tragic event.

"Children may need reassurance that their classroom and school are safe places for them. It is important to recognize the needs of individual children who might have a harder time coping with this event than others. Often children who are blogpullquoteHelpingChildrenprone to anxious feelings or those with their own trauma history can be triggered by another traumatic event, even if it did not directly happen to them. In addition to the positive, supportive classroom climate and the social and emotional learning tools that Open Circle provides, some students may need additional time with a school psychologist or guidance counselor to help them manage their fears.

"It is also critical that adults get the support they need to help students with their questions and feelings about this tragic event. Modeling how to stay calm and knowing when to ask for help yourself will help reassure students of their safety and remind them that the adults in school will be there to take care of them.

"During difficult times, safety, consistency and predictability are critical to helping children maintain a sense of stability and psychological comfort. Open Circle provides a classroom routine and climate that is safe, consistent and predictable. Continuing to do Open Circle, as usual, is very important. Revisiting and applying the following skills and concepts may be one way to help students and adults as they deal with this traumatic event.

"Calming Down ...
Understanding Feelings ...
Speaking Up ...
Listening Skills ...

"Additional Resources
We recommend the following additional resources from the National Association of School Psychologists and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

  • A National Tragedy: Helping Children Cope
  • Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers--English
  • Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers--Korean
  • Talking to Children About Violence: Tips for Parents and Teachers--Spanish
  • Coping with Violence and Traumatic Events: Tips for Talking with Children (by age group, in multiple languages)
  • Coping with Crisis--Helping Children With Special Needs
  • Tips for School Administrators for Reinforcing School Safety"
  •  

    Open Circle is a universal social emotional learning (SEL) program focused on two goals: strengthening students' SEL skills related to recognizing and managing emotions, developing care and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively; and fostering safe, caring and highly-engaging classroom and school communities.

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