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Posted: Jun 23, 2006 14:54


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Best Practices Weak on Creativity and Using Cutting Edge Research
By: Lon Woodbury

By all accounts, the May 25th NorthWest Get-Together in Sandpoint, ID, was a success. As indicated by those who lingered after the last presentation, the informal format facilitated visiting and networking, while allowing everyone to conclude conversations or finalize arrangements for further collaboration. The small size of the group (exactly 80 lunches served), was a relief to those who had mixed memories of the huge swap meets at the twice annual IECA Conferences and the increasing size of the annual NATSAP conference. The last minute reception held the evening before by Echo Springs was appreciated by about two dozen people either in town early or within easy driving distance of Sandpoint. It is obvious that the dedicated and caring professionals who work in the parent-choice network of Emotional Growth/ Therapeutic residential schools and programs are hungry for a chance to meet and learn from their colleagues elsewhere in the network.

The two substantive presentations kept the audience engaged, with a lot of active participation. These two presentations were from Larry Stednitz who defined the history and implications of Best Practices, and Linda Zimmerman who talked about the rapidly expanding knowledge of the "brain", and the new tools made available to programs based on that new knowledge.

Taking these two presentations together, I learned that anything designated "Best Practices" will be based on original research that is probably more than 10 years old, and the standard process of adopting original research findings is very slow. As new knowledge is released, it has to be tested and researched for a number of years before a definitive judgment is rendered. It takes time for any information to receive the designation of a Best Practice.

We learned from the Larry Stednitz presentation that the concept of Best Practices came from the federal government with very specific protocols, and has been widely adopted by State and local governments. Presumably, the impulse is that taxpayer money should be spent only for practices that have been proven through extensive research. In other words, the goal is to provide only the best for our children. Another part of the goal is to avoid having the taxpayers pay for speculative methods, which could wind up a waste of time and money. This very appealing goal has its limitations however. Achieving the designation of Best Practice for a new method can easily take 10 years or longer because it must be replicated in other settings with multiple research efforts that demonstrate efficacy.

From Linda Zimmerman, assisted by Dr. Judith Pentz and Loi Eberle, we learned about the many promising tools she has been using with positive results in her Sandhill Center for seriously damaged young people up to the age of 14. Linda described recent findings related to how the brain works, the various areas of brain activity, and the stages of growth of the brain in children. She also explained that any intervention with a child only works when the relevant part of the brain is active. Linda described some of the tools and approaches she has found effective, many of which are computer-generated games played by using various types of sensors rather than a joystick. Being a game, it is easier to engage the child's interest. To play the game, the child tries to moderate his/her brain wave activity, or relax through breathing techniques similar to yoga exercises, or through dance steps. The specially designed sensors provide immediate computer feedback. These tools, and the knowledge they are based on, have become available only in the last few years. The important thing is that they are showing a profound and very positive impact on children.

Much of the knowledge and tools currently used by Linda Zimmerman will have to undergo many years of research before they qualify for Best Practices. Regardless of how promising the results, how satisfied the parents are, or what the outcome studies show, the timeframe remains the same.

Some of the implications when comparing these two presentations are that the concept of Best Practices as commonly used, while laudable in its intentions, does make this a very conservative and cautious worldview. When public grants are based on Best Practices, there is a basic limitation in the ability of public agencies to be creative and take advantage of new research and knowledge. On the other hand, private schools and programs, without any mandate or political pressure to adopt Best Practices, can be much more creative and flexible in pioneering new approaches. This allows a rapid response to a changing society, with children's evolving needs.

A healthy public-private partnership would rapidly expand our knowledge base as society's needs change. The public sector could fund the tried and true and a relatively independent private sector could freely encourage visionaries to pioneer new knowledge. As these new pioneering methods prove themselves, the public sector could then adopt the best of them.

This informal partnership would of course be the best of both worlds, but could be devastated by current proposals of draconian and aggressive controlling regulation as proposed by some activists. The loss of the independence of the private sector through aggressive regulatory controls would in the long-run hurt the children, by slowing the adoption of methods based on knowledge gained by exciting new research.

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