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Posted October 7, 2002 

They Are, After All, CHILDREN!

By Robert Kantar,
Senior Consultant & Head of School, Emeritus
The King George School
bkantar@brownschools.com or RKantar@aol.com

As an educational consultant, clinically supervised for 25 years, and head of school, emeritus, I am very familiar with DSM-IV diagnoses and the myriad of terms used to define adolescent children. My skills in evaluating these children have been recognized by my colleagues during my long career in both public and private education. My various experiences as teacher, counselor, principal, head of school, college admission officer and freshman dean, combined with my personal training and inquiry, have motivated me to write this article.

I am convinced that it is a rare child who cannot respond to adults seeking to build a healthy relationship with them. Experience proves to me that adolescent children react positively to nurturing, encouraging, and honest conversation with a concerned adult. Nagging, yelling, threatening, and berating have not been techniques that have worked for me. I am amazed how intuitive and how discerning, even the angriest adolescent can be when they identify an adult who truly cares for them. Adolescent children have distinguished themselves with their candor when they perceive themselves as safe with an adult who listens.

Adolescents frequently misinterpret what they hear for many reasons. Some allow their emotional feelings to override an objective situation. Some are continually misinterpreting their social world because of the difficulties created by diagnoses such as ADD. Adults can support them if these adults create conditions that facilitate clear communications, structure, attainable objectives, and a sense of safety in their daily life. It is incumbent upon adults to be role models, mirrors, of the behavior they want to promote. There is NO evidence that adults who promote one standard for their behavior, are successful in teaching children to conform to a different one. Adolescent children still need to have many situations and procedures patiently explained to them, as they often miss information that we assume they should have.

Chronological age does not always match adolescent emotional or behavioral presentations. It is common for students to make very astute intellectual observations and to present concepts intellectually beyond their years. This does not, however, insulate them from emotional or behavioral manifestations, which belie their chronological age. Adolescent children do not necessarily have controls or coping skills to deal with impulsivity, anger, disappointment, or pain. Add to this list such dilemmas as trauma, grief, family dysfunction, economic excess or economic deprivation, natural disaster, or now, even terrorism, to understand the variety of circumstances for which children may need coping skills. Notice, if you will, that concerns facing adolescents may not be of their making. They are often lacking the perspective and experience of adults.

In America, the land of opportunity, they are told the sky is the limit; they can do anything they want to do. Yet, upon examination, there are many impediments to success facing each new generation that may not have been present in previous generations.

Children today live in a world threatened by war and a population that will grow from 6 billion to almost 9 billion people by 2050. The interrelationship of countries throughout the world makes commerce more complex and careers more diverse. Many of our children will not be able to achieve at the level we have. The pressures to conform to families, peers, gangs, cultural expectations, and popular culture temptations often consume the energy of our children. They can become prisoners of narrow gender or social expectations.

The ingredients that haunt children at risk are many and diverse. The children do not mirror any one-root cause or any one simplistic solution. They do, however, almost universally respond to kindness, directness, reason, and consistent role models.

It is essential for these children to raise their sights, develop a strong sense of their own being, feel confident and receive acceptance. They must hear that significant adults believe in them and they must hear that they are good. Children need to know they have a purpose in life, they are valued and that they can give back to their families, their community, and society at large. Children need to know that our society understands them as the most valuable natural resource of our environment.

The work that needs to be done for children is in their spiritual development, their sense of purpose, and their belief in more enduring values. They need to exchange hopelessness for hopefulness through achievement, accomplishment, and productivity. Adolescent speeches and posturing do not replace playing an instrument, singing a song, creating a story, drawing a picture, climbing a mountain, repairing a car, or completing a school task (you can make your own list).

You may ask how such a posture on my part translates to what we are doing in education? I believe we, as educators are at risk for losing to the diagnosticians, our confidence in educating our children. While it is enlightening to know what is wrong with a child in diagnostic terms, it is much more fruitful to have counsel on how to help a child with a certain set of special needs. For example, it is one thing to diagnose a child as autistic, it clearly another problem to design a plan to address such needs and to translate them in the program and daily life of a child. This is the basis for the diversity of programs across the nation, but it also the dilemma of choosing the best fit for a child. It is as if the communications between the diagnostician and the service provider are lost in a sea of blame and frustration.

The educator needs to focus upon the developmental, safety, health, and care needs of a child as well as the diagnostic labels. It is essential that boarding and residential programs provide a safe, nurturing environment along with an education that addresses a child’s learning styles and needs. Educators need to assert themselves as partners in the child’s growth, rather than compliant conformists to the diagnosticians. In effect, the diagnosticians must share authority with the educators delivering services. They should go further and create a mutually agreeable language to communicate with one another about the ramifications of diagnosis in the schoolhouse. Schools and programs are going to need to combine diagnostic insights with the normal needs of children growing up in our complex world.

They are, after all, children. Praise, acceptance, encouragement, safety, opportunity, and kindness must still be basic to the life of every child. Remove such qualities and the healing becomes more remote.

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