Posted by: Tammy Cravit | February 1, 2011

The Right Result, the Right Way

I was involved in a meeting last week concerning an IEP for a student with special educational needs. As parents, teachers and administrators involved with such kids know, the IEP process can often be grueling and fraught with conflict. But the meeting I attended today was different.

For one thing, the administrator (actually, a school psychologist) who was facilitating the meeting did a great job of giving all the stakeholders – teachers, parent, the student herself, and other school personnel involved with the meeting – a chance to be heard. More importantly, he checked in with each of them to be sure the team had correctly understood what they wanted to say and that each person in the room felt like he or she had been fully heard and understood.

When it was time to hear from the student, the group leader excused himself, and several other staff members from the room. “I don’t want [the student] to come in here to a sea of unfamiliar adult faces,” he said. In this more intimate setting, the student felt more comfortable to express her feelings about the course of action the team was considering.

At the end of the meeting, the team had reached a consensus. We knew what we were going to do, and what the next steps were for each member of the team. But, more importantly, we all felt good about the outcome because we knew our concerns had been heard, understood, and addressed by the team.

I came away from the meeting with this important realization: When dealing with a situation where conflict can arise, process is at least as important as substance.

How can you promote a process which leads to the right results, the right way in your IEP meetings or, for that matter, in other group decisions? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make sure all voices have a chance to be heard. It can be tempting for parents who want a specific outcome for their kids to hear other viewpoints as a challenge. Similarly, professional members of a child’s educational team may wonder why the parent won’t trust their expert judgment. If everyone has a chance to be heard, then everyone will feel more comfortable with and committed to the decisions that are reached, though. Plus, a free flow of information might uncover something that changes the group’s consensus.
  • Make accommodations to keep it feeling safe for everyone. In the IEP meeting I attended, several of the group members excused themselves from the room while the student’s views were heard. This took a certain amount of trust – nobody likes to feel that they’re missing out – but it created a safe space for the student to express herself. Without that safety, the team might not have heard her honest opinion about the actions they were considering, which would have defeated the purpose of asking her input in the first place.
  • Listen with empathy. Particularly when a meeting becomes contentious, it’s important to listen with empathy. This means listening not just to the words people are saying, but to the emotions and needs that underlie those words. I tend to use the tools of Nonviolent Communication to validate and reflect what I’m hearing and to make sure I get to the needs which underlie everyone’s positions. Even if the ultimate decision isn’t what a member of the team wishes for, it’s easier to accept a team’s decisions when you know your concerns have been heard.
  • Be open to new information. We all come into group decision-making settings with our own preconceptions about what outcome we’d like to see, and even about what outcome we think will happen. It’s important to be open to changing your preconceptions if new information justifies it, though. Otherwise, the group ceases to make effective, reality-grounded decisions, and discontent and conflict are sure to arise.

At the end of the day, getting the right outcome is important. But getting the right outcome through a process that supports everyone involved is even better, and is the outcome we all should be striving for.

Cross-posted to What if You Borrow Another Camel?

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Posted by: Tammy Cravit | January 13, 2011

Teens Seeking Plastic Surgery to Combat Bullying

ABC News is reporting on a growing trend, and one which I find rather disturbing: Teens are, in increasing numbers, seeking cosmetic surgery and other medical procedures to combat bullying. The report from Good Morning America says:

Erica is among a small but growing number of teenagers who say being teased or bullied prompted them to consider or even undergo cosmetic surgery. Nearly 90,000 teenagers had cosmetic surgery in 2007, and doctors say the numbers are growing.

“I do see a fair amount of parents coming in with their child because of bullying and teasing and feelings of self-consciousness,” Dr. Michael Fiorillo, a cosmetic surgeon, said. “My preference is, of course, to work out the issues first, the bullying, the teasing. But there are certain situations where people are mature enough. And surgery is a final resort.”

Popular cosmetic surgeries for teenagers include nose jobs, breast reductions, breast augmentations, ear tucks and Botox injections.

In one case mentioned in the article, a 5-year-old child began receiving Botox injections to counteract a “droopy grin” which was the source of teasing.

Maybe it’s just me, but this strikes me as entirely the wrong way to counteract bullying. When we give our children cosmetic surgery to correct perceived “defects” that form the basis of teasing, aren’t we really validating that the things our kids are being teased for really are problems?

I’m not the only one concerned. Child psychiatrist Dr. Ned Halliwell was quoted in the article saying:

“The idea of someone getting plastic surgery to avoid bullying seems to me as crazy and worrisome as if a black person were to go to a doctor and say, ‘I wanna become white to avoid racism. The problem is clearly with the phenomenon of bullying, and not with the person’s nose.”

What do you think? Is plastic surgery the right way to stop bullying for our kids? Or is it a misguided way to treat (and legitimize) the symptom while avoiding the more fundamental problem?

Posted by: Tammy Cravit | January 11, 2011

Keep Both Eyes on the Ball

Picture this scene in your mind:

Teacher, resource teacher, parent, and principal are gathered around a table. Maybe a school psychologist’s there. They’re doing an annual review of an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). The parent demands more services for her son, accusing the school of failing to do enough. The school staff get defensive. The tension in the room rises, until finally the parent storms out, threatening to call a lawyer.

If you’re involved in the Special Education Process, you’ve probably seen interactions play out that way before. In my work as a facilitator for parents of children with special educational needs, I see it all the time. These kinds of non-productive arguments arise because of a simple mistake: The people involved in the meeting take their eye off the ball. They shift their focus from the child to the conflict.

This is hardly surprising behavior. Once we perceive that we’re in a conflict, it’s often human nature to want to be right. Few people like losing, once they perceive that they’re in a battle. This is why conflicts naturally tend to escalate, why resentments simmer and eventually explode, and why diplomacy so often gives way to war.

If you find yourself in a situation like the one I’ve described above, what can you do? Mentally take a step back from the conflict and recognize that you’re focused on the wrong target. Being right, or winning the battle, isn’t what’s important. In an education context, the needs of the student should always be in the forefront, and if you’re focused on the conflict and not the student, your eye is on the wrong ball. This is easier said than done, sometimes, and it takes practice to develop the ability to mentally disengage. The benefit is worth the effort, though.

It’s easy to let ourselves get sucked into conflict. When we do that, though, we may find ourselves winning the battle and losing the war. Such an outcome benefits nobody.

Posted by: Tammy Cravit | January 11, 2011

Bullying by Peers Can Contribute to Psychotic Symptoms

Though there’s been a growing awareness of the problem of bullying, in the school setting and elsewhere, in recent years, some teachers and administrators persist in glossing over acts of bullying in schools as just “kids being kids”. This article, from the Los Angeles Times, should give them pause.

The Times reports that:

New research suggests that bullying by peers can increase the risk of the victim developing psychotic symptoms later in life.

The new study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, used valuable data from the Environmental Risk Longitudinal Twin Study, which follows 2,232 twin children and their families. Mothers of the children were interviewed and, at age 12, children were asked about bullying experiences and psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions or paranoia. The presence of psychotic symptoms was verified by a doctor.

The study found that children who were bullied by peers were more than twice as likely to experience psychotic symptoms at age 12 compared with children who did not suffer similar trauma. This risk remained present even when the researchers controlled for other factors that could contribute to mental illness, such as socioeconomic deprivation, IQ and genetic disposition to mental illness. Children who were bullied and who also experienced maltreatment by adults were more than five times more likely to develop psychotic symptoms. However, enduring a traumatic accident did not significantly increase the risk.

If you know or work with anyone who shares the attitude that bullying isn’t an important problem, please share this article with them. Bullying isn’t just about “kids being kids” and, as this new research shows, failing to take bullying seriously is just plain dangerous.

Posted by: Tammy Cravit | January 11, 2011

UK’s National Bullying Helpline to Close

I think most of us agree that bullying – in the classroom, on the playground, and in our professional and personal lives – is a huge problem. So you’d think that organizations set up to combat bullying would be doing well, right? Unfortunately, it appears not, given the recent news that the National Bullying Helpline in the United Kingdom is closing:

Civil Society reports:

The National Bullying Helpline has closed due to lack of funding and the resignation of its founder and chief executive, Christine Pratt.

A spokesman for the charity said an increased workload and trying to secure funding for the charity had taken its toll on Pratt’s health:

“This last year, calls to our helpline have trebled and we have had to take on additional volunteers and resources to meet demand,” he said, “Undoubtedly, the closure of our charity will be a great loss to the public.”

Apparently, the people and groups funding the Helpline don’t think bullying is important enough to spend money on. This is, unfortunately, precisely the attitude that allows the bullying culture to continue.

Posted by: KatieLPhillips01 | January 3, 2011

A Global Approach to Education Reform

The Washington Post’s online education column, The Answer Sheet, tackled the difficult question: “What are other countries doing to reform their education systems?” After consistent statistics reporting that the United States is falling behind in education while other countries (like Singapore, Finland, and Canada) are surging ahead, it would seem as though alternative education models are proving more effective — and, that perhaps the United States should re-evaluate its current system.

From The Answer Sheet:

SINGAPORE
Prime Minister Lee of Singapore (Aug. 29, 2010): “I think we should do more to nurture the whole child, develop their physical robustness, enhance their creativity, shape their personal and cultural and social identity, so that they are fit, they are confident, they are imaginative and they know who they are.

“Every child is different, every child has his own interests, his own academic inclinations and aptitudes and our aim should be to provide him with a good education that suits him, one which enables him to achieve his potential and build on his strengths and talents. Talent means talent in many dimensions, not just academic talent but in arts, in music, in sports, in creative activities, in physical activities.

“We need to pay more attention to PE, to arts and music and get teachers who are qualified to teach PE and art and music.

“Give each one a tailored and holistic upbringing, so you get academic education, moral education, physical education, art and a sense of belonging and identity. We aim to build a mountain range with many tall peaks but with a high base, not just a single pinnacle where everybody is trying to scramble up one single peak. And we are realizing this vision.”
FINLAND
Timo Lankinen, Director-General, Finnish National Board of Education (Sept. 13, 2010):

“We are not actually talking a lot about numeracy or literacy, the agenda for change is more about increase of the arts and physical education into curriculum, and the highlight of 21st century skills or as we call them citizen skills.

“We have relatively small class sizes so there is the possibility to individualize that attention for each children (sic) ability to personalize … but we have questions to ask ourselves, do we enable teachers and students to flourish enough, for example giving them individual aspirations, and engaging students so that there will be more experiential learning.

“Looking at basic education and success in PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] results, we have to bear in mind that children also participate in early childhood education … which is mainly through play and interaction.

“We will be great when every student and stakeholder says for example ‘I love school’ and ‘I’m doing well in school’ – so it’s not only the subject knowledge we are seeking after.”

CANADA
Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario, Canada, Sept. 13, 2010:

“It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, it doesn’t matter how much you want change — you won’t get results unless you enlist your teachers in the cause of better education.

“We have worked hard to build a positive, working relationship with our teachers. We do not engage in inflammatory rhetoric. We do not use our teachers as a political punching bag. Public bickering undermines public confidence.

“Policy development and implementation happen in dialogue with our education partners.

“We don’t always agree, but I am reminded of some of the best political advice I ever received. I got it from my mother, on my wedding day, she said: ‘Whatever happens, keep talking.’

“So we keep talking to our teachers. I make it clear to them, and all our education partners, that our pursuit of improvement will be relentless. And there is no place to hide.”

To summarize:

*More emphasis on the whole child, physical education, the arts, fostering talents and citizen skills.

*Less emphasis on numeracy and literacy or testing

*Greater respect for teachers, the profession and their role as partners in educational reform.

I think the emphasis on testing is proving to be a double-edged sword. Obviously, one would think that if the student really has absorbed the knowledge, it would be apparent in his or her performance on the test. But the education models of Singapore, Finland, and Canada are seeking to support students in a more holistic, well-rounded manner, fostering all of their potential interests and talents.

Is it time for the United States to look to more effective models and strive for change?

Posted by: Tammy Cravit | December 22, 2010

Bullying Isn’t Just Limited to the Classroom

It seems that schools and others in the school community are becoming more sensitive to issues of bullying. We clearly have a long way to go, but we’re perhaps starting to see more awareness, more movement in the right direction. But the classroom isn’t the only place where bullying can occur, as we can see from this Toronto Star story about the father of a 12-year-old hockey player who used his skills as a lawyer to bully the only girl off of his son’s co-ed hockey team.

The Star reports:

The controversy that seized the Toronto Ice Dogs PeeWee “A” club — minor hockey’s lowest level of competitive play — emerged last month at a parents’ meeting called by George Atis, who has a child on the team, but is not part of the coaching staff.

The Thornhill lawyer drafted the agenda which included this item: “Kayla Watkins — Player Ability Limitations and Suggested Options.”

“It is now 14 games into the season and I have noticed that Kayla’s play has not improved,” the agenda reads. “It is at the point where many of the team members do not want to play on this team if this situation is not addressed.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Atis’s heavy-handed tactics, which also included thinly veiled sexual harassment allegations and other assorted attacks on Kayla’s character, was successful in his efforts. Kayla quit the Ice Dogs and joined an all-girls team where, she reports:

“Everyone’s nice to each other. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose. If we lose a game, it’s okay because everyone picks each other up.”

As parents, teachers, administrators, and as human beings, we should be prepared to face bullies wherever we find them. The harm to our children, and to our communities, is just as severe whether the bully is a classmate, teammate, coach, or another parent. As for Mr. Atias, he’s unrepentant, saying only that he never intended for Kayla to see the meeting agenda and that if she did, “it is very unfortunate.”

(Thanks to Above the Law, which linked to this story along with its own very sardonic, but in my opinion accurate, commentary.)

Posted by: Tammy Cravit | December 17, 2010

A Lesson in Manners

With all the attention being paid to the issue of cyber-bullying lately, here’s a story about a group of cyber-bullies that took responsibility for their activities.

According to the Restorative Justice Online blog, a group of students set up a fake Facebook account and impersonated a teacher online. In the United States, such activity can lead to criminal charges. But the students in this case were in British Coumbia, and were lucky enough to have their misdeed addressed through the Chilliwack Restorative Justice Program.

If you’ve read A is for Asshole, the Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution, you know that the Restorative Justice movement views criminal behavior as a profound rift between victim and offender, and between both parties and their community. RJ seeks to give voice to the victim and to allow victim and offender to collaborate together to decide restitution and to heal those rifts. In this case, part of the restitution these cyber-bullies made was to publish a letter in their local newspaper saying, in part:

Shortly after, we were caught and realized the potential damage that we could have caused our teacher and his family. If he wanted, our teacher could have laid charges against us. Thankfully our teacher was very forgiving and instead, we were given the option of completing a community service program under the supervision of Restorative Justice.

We are very lucky and wanted to write this message to warn other people because the next person may not be as lucky as we were. So, if you intend to do something silly, stupid and illegal on Facebook or on any other social network, please think twice. We wish we did!

The resolution to this case gives the parties a chance to heal, and I think is better for victim, offender, and the community at large than incarcerating these young people would ever have been. Hopefully this sort of resolution to bullying incidents will become more widespread and we can heal the social and emotional rifts that give rise to bullying in the first place.

Posted by: KatieLPhillips01 | December 15, 2010

Should Gay History be Included in Textbooks?

What material should be included in school textbooks? It’s a question that’s garnered much attention recently due to the Texas textbook debate — raising issues of creationism versus evolution and use of the term “triangular trade” as opposed to “slavery.” Now, California state senator Mark Leno (who happens to be openly gay), is proposing that gay history be included in school textbooks as a means to combat anti-gay bullying. What do you think? I didn’t learn about ‘gay history,’ (for instance, the Stonewall riots) until college, but it would’ve been useful to have a working knowledge of such modern injustices. In my opinion, it would result in a more well-rounded education and would engage children in such a way that they would be able to formulate opinions on their own, as opposed to being spoon-fed conservative values.

From the Sacramento Bee:

Openly gay state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced a bill today that would require public school materials to include the historical contributions of gay people as a way to fight bullying.

Leno’s Senate Bill 48 is similar to a proposal that was approved by the Legislature in 2006 but vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Most textbooks don’t include any historical information about the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement, which has great significance to both California and U.S. history,” Leno said in a press release. Leno was recently named to prominent leadership as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Leno added: “Our collective silence on this issue perpetuates negative stereotypes of LGBT people and leads to increased bullying of young people.”

Read more HERE.

Posted by: Tammy Cravit | December 13, 2010

Avoid Misunderstandings by Avoiding Jargon

As most of us know, one of the key triggers that can create conflict is misunderstanding. If you and I don’t have a common understanding of what we’re discussing, how can we possibly negotiate an agreement? In fact, creating a shared language and a shared understanding is, in my view, one of the key tasks of a negotiator, mediator, or facilitator.

One place where I too often see misunderstandings crop up in schools, especially in the Special Education context, is where professionals use jargon or technical language. In fact, a significant part of what I do in facilitating the Special Education process for parents is to help them understand the language of the law and of the professionals on their child’s education team.

Consider this excerpt, which I’ve taken verbatim (except for the student’s name) from a real report prepared by a school psychologist:

Jane’s below average score on the Auditory Comprehension subtest of the TAPS-3 is significantly lower than her score on the Listening Comprehension subtest of the WLPB-R, and was probably due to lapses of attention on the TAPS-3 (see WLPR-B below). Her below average score on the Sentence Memory subtest is relatively consistent with her below average to low average score on the Memory for Sentences subtest of the WLPB-R.

If you’re a school psychologist or credentialed Special Education teacher (or if, like me, you have a lot of experience reading these sorts of documents), the above paragraph conveys important information about how Jane learns and where she is in her academics. If, on the other hand, you’re a typical parent, it’s highly likely that by the end of the paragraph, you’ll be scratching your head in confusion.

The trouble here is one I’ve seen in many professions that use specialized language: The professionals forget that not everyone can talk like them. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and psychologists all have their own lingo, and their own verbal shorthand. And the professionals forget that the terms which are commonplace for them aren’t that way for everyone.

When parents face a barrage of this kind of specialized lingo, I see several common reactions. Some simply shut down, failing to engage the process at all and going along with the school’s decisions because they simply don’t understand what’s being proposed. Some feel as though the school’s trying to put one over on them, or trying to bury serious problems by wrapping them up in bland professional-ese. These folks often become angry and combative at the perceived verbal slight-of-hand. Others feel talked down to, which brings up defensive feelings. In all three cases, the student’s needs get lost in the unnecessary conflict.

How can we avoid this problem?

For parents, the answer is simple: Ask questions. Lots of them. Say, “you said in your report that Jane scored below average on the Auditory Comprehension subtest of the TAPS-3. Can you explain to me what that test measures?” In all likelihood, the professionals aren’t trying to be condescending or difficult. They just forget that not everyone speaks their language. A Special Education Facilitator can also help you make sense of what the evaluations and assessments are telling you.

For educators and professionals, the solution comes from being conscious of our language choices. The law often requires this sort of technical language in the reports, so you have a couple of options for minimizing confusion. You can give the technical information in writing, followed by a brief explanation, in plain English, of what the assessment results mean. Or, you can take some time when you give a parent a report or assessment to walk through its contents and explain what the findings mean.

Once parents, teachers, psychologists and other professionals come together with a common language and cut through the jargon, communication becomes clearer. Opportunities for misunderstanding, and therefore for conflict, are reduced. And everyone can stay focused on the task of helping the student to succeed.

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