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Jill Burke: When it comes to kids, small accomplishments matter

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 20, 2015

As the fall semester came to its close last week, my child's teacher offered him sage advice: "Be kind to yourself. Celebrate your growth." It struck at the perfect time. The phrase "when flailing isn't failing" had been on my mind as a possible writing topic. For any of us, a little praise generally goes a long way, and with children who struggle, praise can be the push they need to overcome barriers and begin to flourish. The teacher's words shook this column loose.

When children struggle in school, finding success can sometimes mean looking in unlikely places -- beyond the stereotype of the "good student" -- and uncovering the ways in which the child is succeeding.

Granted, this mission of kindness and looking for growth in unexpected ways is not always an easy task. As parents, it is easy to focus on what's not happening well, to harp on structure and discipline. The grades are low. Behavior is disruptive. Getting out of the house in the morning is a predictable two hours of chaos. Chores aren't getting done. You're grumpy after fielding daily complaints about not having the cupboards or fridge stocked with favorite foods, or that bedtime is too early, or that they want more phone time. Or maybe you are refereeing a constant barrage of petty sibling disputes. There is no end.

While failures are easy to point out, and ought not be ignored, it is worth the effort to look deeper at your child's full life experience over the last few months and uncover what is going well, where it is they made progress and improved. For children who have experienced trauma -- and a lot of children in Alaska have -- positive support will help them break the cycle, get out of "the world is a dangerous place" mode, and have better chances of high school graduation, success in college and finding a good job.

Mounds of research in the fields of child welfare and child psychology support the idea that being positive instead of negative is the greatest weapon a parent has to shape, support, and mold young people into independent individuals who are healthy and successful.

"It is really important to not see people as a bundle of problems that need to be fixed. But to achieve greater well-being we need information also about their strengths, what it is that we can we leverage that will help them achieve greater wellness," said David Murphey, a senior research scientist at Child Trends, which describes itself is "a nonprofit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families."

This is especially true with children who have survived trauma or are currently living with it.

"...Abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or growing up with substance abuse, mental illness, or a parent in jail," are part of the adverse childhood experiences matrix that shows "childhood trauma may lead to serious health problems that last into adulthood and even future generations," explains Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services. "Children's stress hormones can reach toxic levels that interfere with their brain development."

In a school setting, this may mean that a child has so much going on outside of school that they are unable to learn. Post-traumatic stress can lead to a child developing maladaptive coping skills that will stay with them into adulthood.

But, there is hope.

Murphey likes to look at the flip side of post-traumatic stress, something he calls Post-Traumatic Growth. "Even when we have a major life crisis or a trauma, people can experience many possible changes, like greater insight or greater understanding," he said.

Time and again, what turns young people around are trusted and caring relationships.

"Having those relationships is really important to someone's resilience after adversity," he said.

Alaska's report on adverse childhood experiences -- also called ACEs -- reinforces Murphy's point. The report states that "Childhood trauma can reduce Alaskans' ability to earn a good living. The impact starts early by undermining educational achievement. Alaskan adults with four or more ACEs are more than 250% less likely to have graduated from high school than those with zero ACEs. Graduation rates for college show that having zero ACEs almost doubles an Alaskan's chance of having a four year degree than those with four or more ACEs."

The report goes on: "Our brains can recover from trauma, but it is a challenging process. It is more cost-effective, in human and financial terms, for children to grow and develop in a healthy environment than to try to help them heal from toxic stress later. This means interrupting the ACE cycle. Fortunately, there are many opportunities to do so."

Kristin Moore, a social psychologist, senior scholar and co-director at Child Trends, has dedicated much of her career to trying to refocus the discussion around adolescents from negatives to positives. She emphasizes the need to lessen risk factors and to strengthen protective ones. Risk factors might be underage drinking, disengagement from school, pregnancy, or dropping out. Protective factors would be promoting the skill building that will support a child through to graduation and beyond, and to help them make positive, healthy choices.

For Moore, one of the best indicators of a child's wellness is their relationship to their school. If they are engaged, curious, excited to learn, ask questions, and read outside the classroom, they are on the right track.

"Look for the precursors to the things you want in the long term and reinforce them positively," she said. "A small improvement can be an indicator that they are on the right track."

What is a small improvement? Maybe the child's grades were low but they never missed class and had a semester with no behavioral problems. Or maybe it's a gift for music. Or sports. Or with some children, it might be day-by-day victories that you look for. "It is really important to provide praise, to acknowledge every success, even if it's completing the assignments with care and diligence and turning them in on time," Moore said.

"Many people have the tendency to see grades on a report card as the measure of how a child is doing. But children are bigger than that," and parents have a huge role in nurturing the growth of the whole child, Moore said. "Parents should not discount the importance of the praise they provide."

So with that, our child experts offer these parting tips for bringing the fall semester to a close, enjoying winter break, and setting the tone for Spring 2016.

"I think asking a child to reflect back and think about what they are most proud of. And name some things that they'd like to achieve next semester. Build on strengths rather than deficits," Murphey said.

And from Moore: "Spend positive time together. Praise one another. Support one another. Have fun together."

Summed up: Be kind to yourself and your children, celebrate each other's growth, and enjoy the winter break.

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at jill@alaskadispatch.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.

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