Self-regulation, toxic stress, and Baltimore.

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

So, let’s break it down.

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 A kid or adult with crap self-regulation abilities might appear hostile, aggressive, violent, smart-mouthed, withdrawn, anti-social, hyperactive, lethargic, or unfocused.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONE.

I read this morning about the death of Stella Young, a disability activist in Australia. In her brief years, Ms. Young managed to make a very large impact on disability policy, and changed a lot of people’s ideas about the limits of those with disabilities. She did this in between frequent surgeries for her painful condition.

Reading her story made me think of some other people who have single-handedly made an oversize positive impact. Here are a few exemplars:

1. Tony Kerwin, founder of Destiny Rescue (destinyrescue.org). Tony is an electrical contractor from Australia. One summer on vacation with his family, he decided that the sale of young children for sex had to stop. So, he went back to Australia, sold his business, sold his house, roped a few pals into his nutty scheme, and founded Destiny Rescue. Ten years on, DR has group homes in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Mozambique, and is working on opening operations in India and the Dominican Republic. To date, DR has rescued and housed over 1,000 children trapped in sex slavery.

2. Ann Jernberg & Phyllis Booth (ok, they’re two people, but Ann died before she got to do all she wanted to, and Phyllis picked up the baton). Ann Jernberg worked in Chicago Head Start in the 1960’s. Her job as interventionist was to help kids with behavior problems. By herself. In  Chicago. Being a smart woman, Ann quickly realized one person could never meet the need of thousands of preschoolers, so she set about creating a program of interventions that other speech-language pathologists, social workers, teachers, and psychologists could use. She called it Theraplay and today, The Theraplay Institute (theraplay.org) trains helping professionals around the world in developmentally appropriate interventions for young children with behavior problems and trauma. Interestingly, science is catching up with Ann, finally, and explaining how Theraplay activates the parts of the brain related to human connection and healing.

3. Jean Baker Miller- Was a one-woman crusade against the patriarchy in psychiatric medicine in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jean was a psychiatrist, and she knew that the dominate paradigm of individualism, separation, and “standing on your own two feet” was unnatural and isolating. Despite a deluge of sexism, she marched on, publishing “Towards a New Psychology of Women” in 1976. Eventually, her ideas evolved into Relational-Cultural Theory, which informs the practice of hundreds of therapists worldwide (jbmti.org).

4. Soulaf Abas- Is a one-woman mission to tell the children of Syria that the world hasn’t forgotten them. Soulaf is an MFA student and visual artist living in the US from Syria. When the civil war broke out, her family suffered. When she heard that the children in the camps in neighboring countries thought the world had forgotten them, she scratched up some grant money and went to work. She gathered dozens of drawings and letters from local children for the children in the camps. And then she flew back to the region, spent 10 weeks in the camps leading art-based activities for the kids, and gave them the letters and drawings from the kids here.

All of these people are bright and passionate, but none are wealthy, exceptionally well-connected or superhuman. And this is only a set of four out of who knows how many people with similar stories around the world. Imagination is the only limit.

In the comments, please share stories of others who have made an impact.

How to win at parent-teacher conferences.

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

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

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

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

And she let him nap in class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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