Tag: prevention education
“Now judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand”
-Bruce Springsteen, Johnny 99
Why are so many people in America obese, depressed, addicted to drugs and pornography? From our mechanistic perspective we begin our explanation with, “Well, that’s because…” Be-CAUSE, or as the Middle English folks may have said, “by cause that.” Such statements tend to match a single phenomenon to a single cause. A poor diet causes obesity, for example. I’m a big fan of Jamie Oliver’s work to reduce childhood obesity and would be a fool not to recognize that a poor diet contributes to this national epidemic. But we need to openly consider other complexities that may exacerbate the problem per individual child. Human behavior is not mechanistic and is therefore not subject to the same laws of causality that govern the physical world. In light of this truth we need to take to heart the following:
1. People are not machines. We’re infinitely more capable and complicated. The adversity that caused Johnny 99 to go on a shooting spree could drive another person to start a software company.
2. Postulating causes for human behavior is natural. But postulating and attributing are two very different things. It is natural to form an educated guess. It is limiting to relationships to assume we know the source of another’s behavior.
3. Even if we could know with confidence why someone does something, this does not mean we now know what to do about it.
4. When human behavior persists despite an onslaught of effort and resources we may, in our disheartened state, concede that the problem surpasses our ability. Were we to be more inquisitive and less hasty to claim with conviction that we know the cause, I believe our efforts would prevail.
Best that we engage with people, behold and study them, serve their core needs to be seen, known, and empowered. Being authentically interested is the charge we must accept. Over time, with keen insight we may come to better understand be-cause.
Who Changed You?
Susan was a junior at Knoxville High School. She was obese. She abused a variety of drugs. Her grades were terrible. She didn’t take good care of herself. One day the basketball coach invited her to film each of the varsity team’s games. Susan accepted his invitation. That season, whether they were playing at home or traveling to other schools, Susan was part of the team. The coach soon noticed a transformation in Susan’s character and behavior. She lost weight, raised her grade point average, started taking care of her physical appearance, and stopped using drugs.
While I can’t know all the factors playing into Susan’s transformation, what I suspect did not change her were the usual methods we employ to improve adolescent health: curricula, demonstrations, lectures, interventions and such. The coach handed Susan so much more than a camera, and so much less than a battery of prevention techniques. He saw, appreciated, honored, and trusted her.
Why do human relationships change us? How do relationships change us? Imagine knowing someone well—a former coach, a classmate, a teacher, a neighbor. We can’t prevent ourselves from being impacted by this person any more than we can keep from making our own impact on him or her. It’s the nature of human interactions. We are changed and go about changing others through some means of connection we’ve formed with the people in our lives.
I encourage you to ask yourself a question at the deepest level possible: Who made the greatest positive difference in my life as an adolescent? You may remember a coach who believed in you, a parent who, despite your highs and lows, stood by your side, or a teacher who inspired you to be more than you thought possible. Who was this person? What about her changed your life? What would you say to this person now? If you could thank her, what would you thank her for?
You may be one, and you aren’t alone, who didn’t have anyone there to support you during this critical time in your life. You may have always craved the consistent presence of a compassionate adult who was there to cheer you on. Describe that person. How would you want that person to support and encourage you? What things would he have done to impress upon you his firm belief in you? Write these things down. Make your description as specific as possible.
This exercise leads us to a second question: How can you be this person you just described to the teens in your life? I will venture a guess that the person or people who influenced you did not do so by virtue of what they said. Sure, you may recall some profound comments. But what made the words profound was the quality of the person who said them to you. They were profound because they were spoken in the context of a relationship. The trusted connection between you is what unalterably affected you for life.
The Future of Prevention: Part Two
In February’s newsletter I championed a more holistic approach to the field of prevention that addresses the sources of risk behavior. In this second installment I advocate personalization over standardization of educational approaches.
Last week I spoke with the director of a youth organization I’ve been working with for several years. Her group is transitioning from a standardized education model to a more personalized one. The director described the initial training for the original program implementation. “We were basically trained to deliver a script,” she told me. Her observation succinctly captured a core tenet of the standardized approach. Hatched in the industrial revolution to promote a “consistent product” (I grieve to think that we would deign to refer to humans and their ideas as “product”), this relic prevails today. We have come to value standards and fidelity to such an extreme that we have marginalized the very elements that can promote behavior change. Standardized educational methods, while they may be earnest in their desire for bringing about positive change, consume precious resources and limit educational effectiveness and efficiency. To recoup these losses and to bring greater benefit to the youth we serve, I believe we must transition from standardized education to a more personalized model. Personalized education does not mean that we deliver a different program to every student. It means we retool our methods to provide every student with the requisite freedom, trust, and safety to make the education his or her own.
Consider the following: You deliver a “Stop Smoking” message to a group of teens and survey them afterward. You’re encouraged by the test results. In each of the key areas students demonstrate positive responses. Nearly all of the students, for example, agree smoking is not in their best interest. You then sit down with the class and pose one final question, “Can you tell me what this message of not smoking means to you?” Thirty students equals 30 unique meanings—and it is at the level of meaning that we must operate if we are to make a positive difference. It’s all too feasible that we could find consistency among student recall that would make the industrialist proud. The questions on the survey only help you measure how well you do in standardized terms. But accurate recall does not make for better decisions, for the simple reason that a student’s ability to recall data has little to do with whether the data has any meaning—and therefore any power. Behavior change is preceded by a process wherein meaningless content becomes meaningful. Personalized education encourages students to partake in this process.
One simple step you can take toward helping students make your message their own is to pose these questions that pertain to meaning during your presentation:
What do you think about this message? How do you relate to this message? How might this message affect your life? If this message seems irrelevant, please, by all means tell me in detail how this seems irrelevant.
Note the freedom and multiple points of entry these questions offer students.
Please don’t misunderstand me: Prevention education should have standards for content. Standards help provide consistency and program fidelity, components that are essential at a number of levels, not the least of which are assessment and evaluation. So while content is something we should define in clear terms, the process of learning–in order to be meaning-filled and potent–should encourage exploration and student process. The message has to progress from being ours to being owned by the students; from being pertinent from our perspective, to becoming a transformative element in how students see themselves and the world. Only when students personalize our message can we have any confidence that our work is effective. To ensure the most promising outcomes possible we must retool our training and implementation.
I was presenting on this topic a couple weeks ago in Florida when one participant noted what I believe is the primary reason we shy away from personalizing education, no matter how much good we think this will bring to students: “It feels really vulnerable,” she said. She got it. More than our fear of getting in trouble for not fulfilling standards, there is a deeper fear, multifaceted, that sabotages our efforts. I suspect, based on my own experience, it’s one of the most powerful fears–fear of the unknown. We wonder, “If I give students freedom, what might they say or do?” This is one reason we’re drawn to standardized education. In it we discover safety and control. It provides a Trojan horse within which we can house our fears. We do well to recognize this, enter classrooms anyway, and open the horse. An honest assessment of our fears is a bold first step that will help us be more effective.
Each of us hopes that our work in prevention education will help youth surmount substantial obstacles. We address this goal in prevention education best not by telling students about something, but instead helping them come to know our message in a personal way. Only then can the power and richness of this message help create the positive change we all seek.