Thursday, December 29, 2011

How we got started with CTC...

Based on feedback received via email over the last couple of weeks, we decided it might be a good idea to provide a brief summary of how Five Town CTC got started.  SO, here goes:

Dr. J. David Hawkins
Dr. Richard Catalano
Back in 1997 researchers at the University of Washington's Social Development Research Group (SDRG) began a study called Diffusion of State Risk/Protective-Focused PreventionThe Diffusion Project for short.  Dr. Richard Catalano and Dr. J. David Hawkins were interested to learn how communities made decisions about the strategies they use to prevent youth problem behaviors such as substance abuse, violence, delinquency, school drop-out, and teen pregnancy.  In particular, they were interested to see whether communities were using information about known predictors for problem adolescent behaviors when they selected programs, policies, or practices.  The study involved seven states (including Maine) where state offices collaborated along with selected communities.  Camden was one of the sites where these researchers gathered data from student self-report surveys (the Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey or MYDAUS) and interviewed key leaders from the community about decisions related to prevention programs and strategies.  The study was a data collection effort and did not involve training in prevention science or any particular strategy, but provided data from the surveys back to the school district.

As this study wrapped up, it was clear to the research team that a framework for community prevention efforts might be helpful to help bridge the gap between what prevention science was telling us and what people were actually doing.  SDRG applied for funding for a new study, this time to test a system of community mobilization for youth behavioral health.  They were awarded monies from several federal agencies, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Mental Health; National Cancer Institute; National Institute on Child Health and Human Development; Center for Substance Abuse Prevention; and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Now that they had funding, the researchers were looking for pairs of communities that were similar in relation to demographics and rates of problem adolescent behaviors, and they needed baseline data about the communities in order to be sure that their interventions were making a difference.  They decided to go to the communities that participated in the Diffusion Project in order to recruit 24 candidate communities for this new study. 

It was 2003 when SDRG approached leaders in the Five Town community to see if they were interested in being part of this new national study.  The timing was good for such an effort here, as we were still reeling from the loss of several youth to suicide, and there was considerable urgency around youth issues.  Our community's leaders agreed to participate, and we joined the Community Youth Development Study.

The system being tested was Communities That Care, or CTC.  Training of the volunteers began in the summer of 2003, which was also when the group's Community Coordinator was hired (Dalene Dutton).  The Penobscot Bay YMCA agreed to serve as a fiscal agent for the monies associated with the grant for the study and to provide office space for the new coalition.  Everything came together in late July, and we were off and running!

We will tell the story of what has happened between our start in 2003 and the present in future installments.  If you have questions or comments, please post them here, or send us an email!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why "good job" isn't necessarily good enough...

 “Good job!”  Have you ever had anyone say that to you?  (We hope so!)  As mentioned in our last entry, recognition that our efforts and talents are appreciated is something that we all value.  We also mentioned that recognition is a powerful predictor of bonding—which is important for young people who are developing their ideas about how they should behave.  What we would like to explore in this week’s post are the types of recognition that are the most effective at creating this bonding and attachment.

We will start with the concept of “feedback.”  When we use the term, we mean information about  performance.  Feedback can be information and details about what you need to change or stop, or it can be about what you need to keep doing the same way.  Turns out, we tend to be much better in our society at giving feedback about what needs to be changed.

Think back on the last time someone helped you learn how to do something…did they give you specific advice on what you should do differently?  Golfers are told, “Don’t swing so hard.” Baseball players are told, “Don’t take your eyes off of the ball!”  Novice knitters are told, “Keep an even tension with the yarn.” We find that, with a few exceptions, most detailed feedback is about what someone wasn’t doing, or what they were doing wrong, sprinkled liberally with a few, “good job!” comments.

Imagine the following scenario:  You are trying to learn how to execute a round kick as a novice in a martial arts class. (If this seems outrageous to you, just go with it for a moment!)  You step up to the practice bag and give the thing your best kick.  The instructor smiles and says, “Good job!”  This may please you.  However, you may have little idea of what, exactly, was “good” about the kick!  Now imagine if the instructor had said, “You had great momentum and good foot position with your heel pointed at the target when you kicked!  Way to go.”  In this instance, you would have known that your heel position was correct and would be more likely to use that position again.  This feedback about what you did properly is important, especially when there are many sub-skills to be learned.

There is another important factor to consider regarding this level of detail…the fact that the instructor could provide you with specific examples of what you did properly means that the instructor was paying attention…to YOU.  An instructor can say, “Good job” even if they were distracted or watching the student next to you.

If students feel that positive feedback is generalized or—even worse—not accurate, they may become skeptical and alienated…and actually less likely to become bonded to those delivering what they feel is false or empty praise.  They may discount future statements meant to be positive and hear only the criticisms.

(Note: we are not in any way suggesting that constructive criticism is not valuable.  What we hope you will take away from reading this is that specific, detailed feedback on what people have done right, is just as valuable—perhaps even more so when we are talking about promoting healthy youth development!)

We find that for most adults, providing this type of feedback to youth is not as easy as you might think.  It is a simple concept, but a surprising number of people struggle to actually do it.  It is also a challenge to make sure that other forms of recognition (beyond basic feedback) are meaningful and valued by the recipients.

Consider a typical scenario in many schools...a school staff member decides to recognize a quiet, but talented young woman with a student of the quarter award.  At many schools, getting this award involves standing in front of the entire student body at an assembly.  For some shy teens, this may be far from a "reward!"  Being really good at providing meaningful recognition is rooted in relationship.  (There is that word again!)  If we take the time to know the people we work with, we may learn what they find to be motivating and meaningful.  Tailoring the way we honor the achievements and efforts of our young citizens is the best way to truly let them know that we notice and appreciate what they offer to our community. 

We encourage you to try providing detailed, skill-specific, positive feedback whenever you are helping someone learn something new.  Especially if that person is one of our younger citizens!  As when learning any new behavior, you will likely first become aware that you didn’t do it as much as you wanted to. It may even feel awkward at first.  But if you keep at it, it will become automatic!

We also encourage you to think about how you reward youth beyond this feedback, and if the reward is truly a good fit for them.  If you try either strategy, let us know how it went.  We can all learn from one another as we strive to make this the best community we can.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Skills + Opportunities + Recognition = Bonding

Praise, recognition, positive attention...we all crave it.  Even people who don't like to be in the spotlight want to know that they and their contributions are appreciated—it is a basic human desire.  Coaches and teachers have long known that recognition plays a major role as young people develop new skills.  We also now know that recognition plays a role as young people develop standards for their own behaviors.

This link between recognition and behaviors, such as abstaining from using drugs, is rooted in a phenomenon known as bonding or attachment.  Simply put, it is all about relationships.  We are most strongly influenced by the people that we are bonded to.  That is to say that we are more likely to adopt the belief systems and standards for behavior of the people to whom we are emotionally attached.  Recognition comes into play because it is a powerful predictor of bonding.

There is lots of evidence that if we provide our youth with opportunities to learn new skills, and then provide them with recognition as they master these skills, they will very likely feel attached to the people and groups that make this happen.  Most adults can think of an example of this from their own lives.  Perhaps a teacher, or a coach, or a mentor somewhere along the line took the time to work with you and gave you feedback on how to improve? And provided some praise as you got better? For many of us, we developed a special relationship with those persons, and may have been influenced in areas that went beyond the skills that were being purposefully taught.  Being aware of this potential can provide insight into how a community can guide its youth.

As a community, we want our youth to make healthy choices when it comes to alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual behavior.  We don’t want them to engage in delinquency or violence. We want them to be able to make these choices even when we are not looking over their shoulders.  For this to happen, they will need to have internalized standards for healthy, rather than anti-social, behavior.  Youth need to have their own internal compass that guides them to make choices that are not harmful to themselves or others.  If we can maximize the opportunities that the community’s youth have to learn from—and become bonded to—positive adult role models, these youth are more likely to internalize standards that will guide them to engage in positive and healthy behaviors. 

There are three key ingredients that must come together for our community to realize this.  First, there must be plenty of opportunities to learn new skills that are well-suited to our younger citizens’ abilities and interests.  Secondly, we must provide meaningful and appropriate recognition of effort and achievement as part of these learning experiences.  Finally, we must be sure to be explicit about the community’s standards for behavior once this bonding occurs.

In our next blog we will delve a bit deeper into what research can tell us about meaningful recognition, especially as it relates to the learning of new skills.  Not all praise, it seems, is good or useful.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Community?

It takes a village to raise a child. The phrase has been around for awhile.  We have all heard it.  We suspect that many of you actually agree with it!  Parents recognize the influence of peers, schools, and other groups that interact with their children.  School personnel know that parents, the faith community, sports clubs, and others affect the beliefs and the attitudes of those they teach.

We have all heard stories of how a single, caring adult can profoundly change the trajectory of a child whose life appears headed for hard times. We encourage people to reach out and engage with the young people around them and to develop the types of meaningful relationships that change lives.   But, even if many of us do so, we realize that some of our young people will still be left out.  Fortunately, all is not lost.  We know that even small actions taken by many people throughout the community can also make a difference.  In fact, they can make a BIG difference.

For example, in our local community young people tell us that many adults seem to only notice them when they have done something the adults disapprove of.  Changing that perception can lead to a profound change in the experience of youth.  If we all made the effort to say something positive to just one young person each day (the cashier at the store, the kid mowing your lawn, the boy who sits on the same bench in the park each day),  our youth would have a different experience of this place they call home. 

There are many examples of the powerful positive effect of the collective influence, versus that of an individual, on youth development.  If we can come together and intentionally address some of the less positive conditions that exist here, we can change the trajectories of many children. The real power to do so comes when we act together... as a community.

The reality is that we all influence the young people who live here, either directly through our actions, or by our inaction.  Some do so in small ways, and others in big ways, but we all do it.  Another reality is that we are not actually raising children at all.  We are raising the adults of the not-so-distant future.  These young people will be your neighbors, your doctors, your plumbers, your community's leaders.  The best way to build the community that we want to have in the future is to start positively changing the community that we live in now. 

We work at the community level because we know it can create significant change for all.  We believe that everyone can and should play a part, and that everyone has a stake here.  Together, we can make our community a wonderful, supportive place to live...for people of all ages.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bullying: Not just playground scuffles

Bully.  The word used to bring forth images of boys being stuffed in lockers, of lunch money being extorted, and of scuffles on the playground.  In recent years this has changed, and new terms associated with bullying have emerged—cyberbullying and peer-abuse, for example.  Whatever image the term may conjure for you, most adults can agree that the consequences can be painful.

Bullying does not happen just to kids, nor just to males.  It appears across the age-span and in human societies across the planet. Bullying involves an imbalance of power and repeated incidents. The attacks can be verbal, physical, or emotional, but to fit what most people agree meets the definition of bullying, the behavior must cause intimidation or fear in the targeted person.

The consequences of being bullied can be extreme (death).  Suicides where bullying has played a role have made headlines across the globe.  In fact, it was the deaths of three teens in Norway that led Dan Olweus to pilot his now famous Olweus Bullying Prevention program back in the 1980's.  Not all of those who are bullied will be pushed to these extremes, but many adults still bear the emotional scars of bullying that occurred in their childhood.

So, what can we—as a community that cares about our youth—do about bullying?   Many things!  We can learn more about the types of bullying young people may be exposed to.  For example, if you didn't grow up with social media and your own email account, you may not fully understand the implications of the viral nature of the web and the terrible emotional consequences that can result from having a secret posted publicly, a photo taken in the locker room emailed to the student body, or constant text message threats.  If you were part of the "in" crowd in school, you  may not understand the damaging nature of social exclusion and how this subtle form of bullying can effect children.

We can talk to our children about their relationships and what their experiences with their peers are like.  This needs to be an ongoing and open dialog if it is to be successful...walking into your middle schooler's room after you read this and asking them if they have been bullied probably won't be effective.  Talking over dinner about friends and learning more about their social circles might shed more light on their experiences.

Research on bullying tells us that one of the most important things we can do is to model kindness and compassion towards others.  Adults need to talk to children about how hurtful bullying behaviors can be, and they need to be explicit about standards for how we should behave towards one another.

Bullying is not just something that schools need to deal with.  With education and persistence, we can all become involved to curb this behavior and help our young people navigate adolescence and childhood with fewer scars—and to arrive at adulthood with a firm knowledge that the community really does care.