Most schools have children whose problems go beyond needing a meal or new shoes.
There are the strains and grief that can hit any family, anywhere. Money problems. Divorce. Disease. Death.
Then there are the added stresses found in low-income neighborhoods, hardscrabble blocks where schools have packed after-school programs, free breakfasts as well as lunches, bins of donated clothing and other supports to fill in the blanks.
Some kids, however, have gone through worse. Domestic violence. Drive-by shootings. Sexual predators. Addiction. Every adult vice and weakness has its collateral damage in the youngsters who live in the room with it.
In movies, our hearts go out to the wide-eyed waif caught in the crossfire of adult lives, that plucky survivor with the winning smile and solid sense of right and wrong.
Their counterparts in the real world are not always so easy to like.
Hyperactive. Hair trigger. Defiant. Sarcastic. Kids who answer teacher demands with anything but the respectful response required. Send them to the office, they lie.
But it’s these often suspension-worthy behaviors that pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg recognizes as survival skills. Grim lives make gritty kids.
“It’s so hard (to deal with them) – if you think it’s about you,” Ginsburg said. “That behavior does not offend you when you can take yourself out of the equation. You have to change your lens.”
Ginsburg is on staff at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and director of health services at Covenant House Pennsylvania, which serves the city’s homeless and marginalized youths.
He spoke in Modesto Oct. 8 to about 700 educators, medical professionals and others who work with youths at the behest of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Stanislaus County.
“The cutest kids are so much easier to play with. Never forget, it’s the kid in the corner who can’t wipe his own nose, can’t express himself, who needs you the most,” Ginsburg told the group.
In a daylong seminar, he talked about adults recognizing and getting past their own needs and biases, and educating themselves about what works with the most scarred children. Ginsburg calls it being trauma informed.
Research and experience have taught him this, he said: “Human beings don’t change when you find out what’s wrong. What works is instilling hope. What works is instilling hope and creating relationships.”
Ginsburg described bad behaviors as coping skills. Defiance as resilience. Piercings and spiked, purple hair as a cry to be noticed, even while telling off the people who stare.
“Kids need to not be invisible,” he said. “They need adults who keep their eyes open.”
He also talked about stereotypes that reinforce the behaviors we fear most.
What do you do when you are driving at night and you see a tall, black teen in a hoodie walking toward you? “You lock the doors, and he hears the sound,” Ginsburg said.
“The world will change when you see a black man walking by in a hoodie and your first thought is to say, ‘Good evening. How are you?’ That is when the world will change.”
The common response of berating and belittling teens who mess up is simply counterproductive. “Shame and demoralization prevent action,” he stressed.
Worse, shaming or dismissing kids who are different can lead to self-loathing and, especially for gay adolescents, suicide. “In all my time in the ICU, the ER – I’ve saved more lives over my lifetime by being gay-positive than all the hard-core medicine I’ve done,” he said.
The key to helping any kid with bigger problems lies in lending a trustworthy ear, one more interested in finding solutions than punishing mistakes. “I provide a place where he can get out of trouble, instead of getting into trouble,” Ginsburg said.
The core of his message to the adults in the room was that marginalized kids can save themselves, must save themselves. But they need a bootstrap to pull on, and that bootstrap is confidence.
“Listen for what is right about that kid,” Ginsburg urged.
“He has validated many of the things we already know,” said Stanislaus County Superintendent Tom Changnon at the midday break. “He’s really spot on with his ideas of youth and attitudes.” Changnon runs the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which provides school programs for expelled students and leads the countywide Destination Graduation initiative to lower the dropout rate.
“As educators at Sylvan, we believe that it is important for us to address risk, acknowledge trauma, and develop strength in our most hardest to reach students,” said Debra Henricks, superintendent of Sylvan Union Elementary District. Hendricks, reached via email, said district staff at the presentation brought back positive strategies.
“Dr. Ginsberg provided tools for giving control back to young people, establishing broken connections, and building competence,” she wrote.
“These things, there’s no easy answer. If there was, we’d have resolved it long ago,” said Lincoln Ellis, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Stanislaus County.
“The next step is going beyond empowering professionals – we deal with it every day. We need to equip people to go out and do this on their own. It gets back to families first,” Ellis said.