Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Most Ignored

I volunteer at a centre for grieving children here in Ontario, Canada.  It's a great place, and a hugely important resource for kids who have lost a loved one to death.  The people who founded it and run it are deeply committed to helping children work through their feelings surrounding the death of a family member.  Sadly there are many kids that need this service.  The good news is that there are numerous grieving centre's across the US and Canada.

I often think of the population of children I work with when I volunteer there.  Where do they go for help?  The reality is, there are very few programs specifically for children who love someone with addiction.  These kids are in pain and grieving.  Some have physically lost a loved one to substance abuse; all have suffered emotionally.

Recently, Sis Wenger, president of NaCoa, released a statement questioning why the needs of these kids, the most vulnerable in our population, aren't being addressed.  It's powerful, well-written, and to the point.

It leaves me asking the question again, where do they go for help?  Why are they the most vulnerable, yet the most ignored?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Home They Wish They Had

The holiday season is upon us...I am in New York City, visiting my sister for Thanksgiving.  I spent the day at her school - which was inspiring, interesting and just all-around fun!  I fully expected this, but I was not so prepared for the depth of thought that it provoked...

This morning as we were driving in, Katie warned me, "Just so you know, today will be nuts. Don't be surprised if you see some students having meltdowns." When I asked why her outlook was so grim, she matter-of-factly stated,
"Some kids don't necessarily look forward to spending a lot of time at home. They have tough things happening and their home-lives aren't the best. They'd rather be at school."
I should have known the answer to that question. The treatment center I work at hosts a "holiday hotline" each year for children who have addiction in their family.

We understood that a vital source of safety and stability is school, and during vacation breaks kids are left without that support system. Additionally, holidays can be a tough time for families struggling with substance abuse issues. Festivities become reasons for drinking, and a happy occasion can quickly turn into a chaotic mess.  Many a child has disclosed in group of a family party gone awry. Unpredictability and broken promises tend to be the norm. The high expectations that accompany the holidays are stressful for everyone.

Spending the day at an elementary school reminds me once again of the important role that teachers and schools play in the lives of children. I watched today as my sister, the assistant-principal, greeted every child as they walked through the door to her school, even remembering to give birthday wishes to one excited girl.  I observed teachers smiling, stopping by her office to chat about the day. The principal of the school casually strolled through the corridors, popping in and out of classrooms saying hello to the students gathered around her. I watched happy kids saunter down the hallway, exchanging hugs with the staff.

There were no meltdowns.

I sensed a feeling of calm and love in a building filled with 400+ kids.

I witnessed a group of people (teachers, security guards, janitors and administration) who were doing something quite remarkable and not even realizing it - creating a home for a community of children.

I thought to myself, again and again, that for many children, school is their home, a home filled with supportive adults who care about them, believe in them and love them.

A home that many of them wish they had.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Your Heart....

"To have a child is to forever watch your heart walk around outside of your body"
I have had the above quote taped to my bathroom mirror for years. I work with parents, but am not one myself.  It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be, but life happens. I got married at 38 years old and naively thought that it would be a breeze to get pregnant. I was wrong. Approaching 41, I have been officially diagnosed as infertile.

In the beginning I wondered if I was qualified to run parenting groups. After all, who was I to give tips on being a mom or dad?  I felt insecure at times. Eventually I realized that I still had the empathy and skills to do this work, regardless of my situation. But I quickly came to understand that the only way to truly comprehend the connection between a child and parent was to be one. This didn't bother me, because I always thought - "someday."  Someday I will know what it's like...

There is a strong possibility that "someday" may not arrive. And here's what goes through my mind:

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A Reasonable Suspicion

I'm back to the Penn State thing, though I have to admit, I never got off of it.  I'm hoping that a result of this mess will be increased awareness on the issue of child abuse reporting.

I spoke a bit about abuse reporting in a prior post, how difficult and scary it can seem to people, especially when it is something that is new to them. Having worked with vulnerable children a good deal of my life, I have done numerous reports.  I've had many discussions with people about reporting, and provided education and training on mandated reporting requirements within organizations I've worked in.  I have learned not to assume that all people in the helping profession know what to do and automatically act.  Because sometimes they don't.  I've also listened to the reasons that people give for not choosing to report, even when they are mandated to.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Let Them Be Kids! Creating safety with rules.

I've trained numerous professionals on group facilitation with kids.  A recurring theme seems to be a struggle to enforce rules. This truly can be the most challenging part of working with young kids, as any classroom teacher can attest to.  It is also one element of group that can make or break the success of the process.

So what should the guidelines be for rules and consequences in groups with young kids?  Here are some  DO’s and DONT’s that have worked for me:

Monday, 14 November 2011

Regardless of Labels....

I am an advocate of "unlabeling." I don't think that's actually a word, but it should be. We spend too much time grouping people into categories. I am guilty of it as well.

I do realize that labels have a purpose. They make things easier. They give us a context, a frame of reference. Labels can be a pathway to needed help and services. But there are times when too much emphasis is placed on what a person's "label" is, and it becomes a distraction. When we see the label first, and the person second.

I work with children of alcoholics and addicts. The label for that is COA. You will notice that I don't use that acronym in my blog. It would definitely be easier, but there is something about a label that is so impersonal. And there is something about using it that makes me cringe. It may be a personal thing.  I am an adult child of an alcoholic (or ACOA).  If I look at the characteristics of an ACOA, I definitely qualify. But again, I cringe when I hear it, because I am so much more than that.  Being an ACOA is not the totality of who I am.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Keeping Them Engaged!

Do you facilitate educational support groups for school-age children?  Have you ever had an amazing activity with an incredible message but it just falls flat on its face?  

In addition to offering kids a supportive environment where they feel safe to share feelings, I am also teaching “lessons” on self-care and problem solving.  As a teacher of my group, it’s my responsibility to create the best environment for learning that I can.  This can be a challenge, but remembering some key points about how children learn can help along the way:

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A Defining Situation - The mess at Penn State

I didn't post anything yesterday, because every time I sat down to write, the only thing I could think about was the horrific situation at Penn State.  This morning I got up and tried again, but to no avail.  It's still the only topic that pops into my head. So instead of avoiding it I figure I'll just dive right in.

It's unlikely that you haven't heard, but in case you're not up on the story here's a link with all you need to know.  There is also a pretty lively discussion about the aspects and outrage at Morning Joe on MSNBC.  This morning when I sat down to have my coffee, I was glad to see that Penn State finally got something right - they fired Joe Paterno.  But my disgust quickly resurfaced when I read about the protests over the firing.  There are many articles out there, and I feel very much like the person who wrote this one.  Protest all you want, but raise your voices in support of the victims and demand accountability.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

On Being Real...

My sister, Katie, is amazing with kids.  She was a classroom teacher for ten years and is currently an assistant principal at an elementary school in New York City.  Two years ago, she and a colleague started the school, taking over a failing one, and this year it was awarded with an A rating by the Department of Education.  Needless to say, I am quite proud of her.  She's my baby sister and I am amazed at what she has accomplished.

About five years ago, I spent the day with Katie and her second-grade class at her school in the heart of Brooklyn. She's one of those teachers that makes things interesting and engaging, and clearly the kids loved to be with her.  She's also a teacher that never once had to raise her voice.  In a classroom of 23 kids she didn't need to. With a look or a gesture, children would step in line. They liked my sister, had a great deal of respect for her, and she for them.  If you have that, classroom management falls into place. Katie was the teacher in the building who would be chosen to have those "difficult" kids placed in her room, because, quite simply, those kids thrived with her.  She had numerous requests from parents who knew of her reputation, and wanted their child to spend their second grade year with her. That's how good she is.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Name Tags....Just Use Them!!!

Want a really simple tool that will greatly improve your group process? Name tags! Not plain old, draw-your-name-in-pen name tags, but fun creative, colorful ones that children (and grown-ups) love.  A whole post about name tags?  Yes - they ARE that important!

I recently read an article by Seth Godin addressing this very topic, but the focus was on group situations with adults. His post was addressing the use of name tags at conferences or business meetings, places where people might be nervous, but certainly not as apprehensive as walking into a support group for the first time. I've always had a bit of a pet peeve about kid's groups that don't use name tags. When they aren't used, I've witnessed awkward situations between kids and adults alike.  It's a basic, subtle tool that should be employed by all group facilitators. Important for so many reasons, here are a few ways that name tags enhance the experience...

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

It's About Having Fun! Easing into a kids group...

No matter how many children I've worked with, or how many groups I've done, I am always nervous, apprehensive and a little scared on the first morning of group. Will things go okay? Will kids open up?  Will we meet expectations? Will they like me? Then I take a deep breath, say the Serenity Prayer a few times, and remind myself that I am an adult. It will be what it will be. The process unfolds the way it's supposed to.

I can only imagine what the children who walk through the door are thinking. Why do I have to do this? Will I be bored? Is it like school? Will they make me talk about feelings? Will the other kids like me? Who knows what thoughts go through their little heads! Over the years I have observed some very skillful group facilitators who are experts at putting children at ease. Whether you are facilitating a weekly group for an hour and a half or an intensive process over a longer period of time, I truly believe that some of the most important work happens within the first hour of your very first session.