Mental Detectors Not Metal Detectors:: Family Problem-Solving
At our workshops around the country, youth professionals continue to report seeing more and more children from deeply troubled homes. If you are not a mental health worker, your college training may not have prepared you for working with children whose behavior is driven by the trauma they endure at home. This issue gives you a few of the basics all youth professionals need to know in order to maximize their ability to successfully do their job with children from deeply troubled homes. However, please note that these introductory basics are just the
start of the information you'll need.
As more and more contemporary children seem to have major family problems compared to years past, it is absolutely critical that both you and your team thoroughly know mental health basics. Since studies emphasize that seeing and helping distressed youth are the primary ways to prevent school shootings, that's another reason that non-mental health youth professionals like educators must upgrade their skills right away. As Richard Lawrence of St. Cloud State University has noted, "We need more mental detectors, not metal detectors in schools."
See the Pain
How are your "mental detection" skills? Some youth professionals never notice that they're working with children in distress. Not noticing makes it more likely that you might add to the child's burdens, and these children already carry a heavy load. You may also miss any cues that show that this is a child who could one day explode in violence. Learn to look deeper into problems like sleeping in class, depression, back talk, irritability, and poor performance, to consider if family problems could be the cause. For example, a child may sleep in class not because she's "just a lazy kid" but because it's the only place she has free from the all-night roar of Dad hitting and berating Mom.
You Can't Fix It
If you are not a family therapist, be careful about focusing your efforts on changing the family. Veteran counselors struggle to impact severely troubled families. Non-family counselors are unlikely to have the desired impact because they lack the time, expertise, and training to succeed. As a non-mental health worker, your expertise lies with children. Put your energy there instead. You can certainly encourage the family to seek counseling, but understand that family therapy should not be provided by people outside the mental health field.
The night after a beating, it can be tough to focus on math. If you have data to indicate abuse, of course you report it, but if you only suspect trauma, be prepared to offer accommodations. If you give traumatized youngsters time to process and recover from recent crises, they will work as hard as they can on days that they are able. Can you fairly ask any more of a human being than that? Since school shooters often feel persecuted or badly treated by others, here is another reason to show you are sensitive and caring instead of adding to the perception that people are mean and just don't care.
Fill in the Gaps
If you can't get the family to do their job, then you fill in the gaps. For example, you may help a child devise a plan to wake up for school each morning, but have granola bars, sox, and other items that the child may need in order to function throughout the day at your site. It's tragic that you must cover for the family to such an extent but if you don't, the child will continue to suffer, and may be so distracted by his unmet physical needs that he can't benefit from the services your site offers. Since studies show that many school shooters were having trouble coping, that is another compelling reason to fill in the gaps.
Evaluate and Upgrade Deficit Skills
Here is a very quick way to see if your team members are competent "mental detectors" able to spot children in distress. Can your team members name the 4 most common mental health/ family problems that children face? The answer is included in our Follow-Up Resources section immediately below, but before you scroll down to look, stop and consider if you know the answer. (Workshop past participants: you should all know this.) If all the members of your team cannot name these 4 problems, how can they spot children with these concerns? Teams that do not know how to spot distress lack the ability to prevent school shootings. Don't believe us? This assertion originates with the 2003 Secret Service/ U.S. Dept. of Ed study on school shooters. Upgrade deficient skills now-- for the sake of students who suffer-- and to more effectively ensure that a shooting never happens at your site. As the study indicates, metal detectors will never work as well as mental detectors.
About the Author: Ruth Herman Wells is the director of Youth Change Workshops (http://www.youthchg.com). She is the author of more than 20 books including the popular Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth Series. She annually trains thousands of teachers, counselors and youth workers.