In 2010, I went to my wife's school and asked them to give me their "toughest" 25 students to work with. They
gladly obliged me. They had many students, mostly young boys, who were either in the dean's office, in in-school
suspension (ISS), suspended out of school (OSS) or simply not working and falling behind in credits. Many were
also alcohol or drug involved, and their suspensions sometimes related to possession or use.
I had taught health education for 33 years before retiring at the end of the 2007 school year. I always believed that
just simply passing out information and advice, as so many in my field simply do, would never be enough to see
the kinds of positive, healthy behavior we hoped for. I based that on the everyday evidence I saw, and something
very basic I'd learned in my first college psychology class. Behavior starts and continues because it serves a
purpose. It's always goal-orientated. It became very obvious early in my career that those young people who
engaged in the unhealthy, self-defeating behaviors I was tasked to try to prevent, more often than not had a greater
frequency, intensity and duration of emotions like anger, anxiety, depression than their classmates. In fact, in a
survey I conducted for my Master's Thesis, I found a perfect correlation between my students self-reported
frequency, intensity and duration of anger and their self-reported use of tobacco. This dysfunctional amount of
emotion gave purpose to their unhealthy, self-defeating behavior, and their behavior would probably continue
regardless of what we said or did to them because it did serve a purpose in their lives. And it would continue to do
that as long as they generated a dysfunctional amount of emotion.
|"Give me your toughest 25 kids"
About midway through my career I discovered and became certified in Rational Emotive Behavioral Education
(REBE), the work of the late Dr. Albert Ellis. REBE is the educational version of Dr. Ellis famous Rational Emotive
Behavioral Therapy (REBT) which he first developed in the middle of the last century. I used that training to
develop a new approach to health education. I initially called that approach "The ABC System of Cognitive,
Emotional and Behavioral Self-Management and Self-Improvement". Since retiring, I've been calling it "The Mental
and Emotional Tool Kit for Life". The point being that I teach young people "tools" to help them fix whatever is
broken in their lives, and build something better for themselves, just like people do with real tool kits around their
Not everyone in my former school like or approved of my approach with my students. Many would rather I have
just stuck to the standards the state listed for my class. I could have done that, but I was never one to just do
enough. I always wanted to do it better than others, and as good as possible. Part of the reason I took on the
challenge at my wife's school was to prove many of my nay sayers wrong.
|The Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life
The young people I had in my groups at my wife's school definitely had more than their share of emotions like
anger, anxiety and depression, especially anger. However, one of the important revelations I'd had over my career
is just how much SHAME plays a role in the misbehavior we see in young people. It's easy to see why. SHAME
comes from believing you don't live up to expectations. My group kids, like so many others like them, had a
lifetime of hearing they didn't live up to peoples expectations, or getting that message in some other way (i.e.
failing tests and classes, detentions, suspensions). They've also been told many times throughout their life by
frustrated and angry adults "You should be ashamed of yourself". And they were. They'd never let on that they
were, but they were.
SHAME can play out as ANXIETY or ANGER. I like to say you either get "turtles" (anxiety) or "rattlesnakes"
(anger). I remember explaining this to my kids and one, who normally will never talk or interact, started chuckling.
I asked him what was up. He chuckled again and said, "I'm both". Most kids are. However, it's the "rattlesnakes"
most adults make mistakes with because they are too quick to take offense at the anger and all the rattling to see it
for what it is - the same thing the real snake does when it feels threatened. It's the snakes way of saying "I'm
feeling threatened and overwhelmed, so back off". Unfortunately, too often, adults who take offense at this
response will do the equivalent of poking a snake with a stick. That never turns out well for the poker or the snake,
be it in real life, or with the "rattlesnakes" teachers have to deal with sometimes in classes.
Mindset is the key to everything, especially in dealing with the most troubled, and especially the most troublesome
students in any school. My mindset has always been that somewhere inside every one of those "turtles" or
"rattlesnakes" is a kid who just wants the kind of life he/she sees other kids having, and just doesn't know how to
get it because of his/her prior life experiences. And, he/she may have already given up hope of ever having that
kind of life. I often use the term "Lost Boys", borrowing from Peter Pan. I see my job as helping them find their way.
There was a drama series on for a while called "The Golden Boy". A burly old detective was given a rookie to
mentor, and what he told that rookie sums up what it's like being a teacher sometimes. He said,
"Inside every person are two dogs always fighting. One good, one bad.
The one that wins is the one you feed the most"
I believe we too often end up feeding the wrong dog. Not on purpose (maybe sometimes when adults get angry)
but because too many adults simply don't understand what they are dealing with. For example, I heard colleagues
say many times, "The problem with these kids is they have no shame". Actually, it's the exact opposite. They have
too much. The theory you come up with for why kids misbehave or fail will dictate the actions you take. If you're
theory is off the mark, or totally wrong, you're going to make mistakes with kids, especially the most troubled and
troublesome ones, who we can least afford to make mistakes with.
One of the first places I started with my kids was to let them know I had UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance for
them, and to encourage them to learn to have USA, or Unconditional Self-Acceptance for themselves. You can read
about what that means on other pages of this website. I believe that if we keep doing what others have always
done with troubled and troublesome students, we'll keep getting what they've always gotten. We need to do
something different. For them, this was very different.
Part of what I asked them to accept as understandable about themselves is that they will probably often have
"mistaken" goals. It's part of being human. I also ask them to accept that changing for the better will be hard even
if they really want to make changes, and how brain physiology and "ruts" can work against them (or for them).
Many of my kids beat up on themselves mercilessly, if not publicly, then privately. I encourage them to stop doing
that, and help them see why. Then I try to substitute a simple, non-judgmental way for us to evaluate their
thoughts, feelings and actions from that day forward. That involves three simple questions, which are Tool #9 in the
1) What do you really want?
2) How's it working for you? To think, feel, say and do what you do now?
3) If you keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing what you do now, will it be easier or
harder to get what you want in the future?
Then I make them some simple promises. I promise to teach them how to:
Have REAL power and control in their lives
Students like these use anger to give them a false sense of power. Believing they make teachers mad (and
teachers believing the same thing) also gives them a false sense of power. They also give away power and control
all the time in ways they often don't see. I promise to teach them how to stop doing that if they'll let me.
I explain to them that by REAL power and control, I mean:
a) To feel the way they want to feel
b) To keep people out of their heads
c) To learn to defend themselves against those already there
d) To have the kind of life they'd really like to have
The second big promise I make them is to teach them how to:
Be SMARTER than most other people in some important ways
More often than not, troubled and troublesome students have spent much of their lives thinking others were smarter
than the. I offer them a chance to turn the tables in a very important way.
To make a believer out of them, I immediately start teaching them how to have an internal locus of control. You can
read about what that means on another page of this website. Then, one by one, I teach them the other "tools" in the
"Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life". All with the intention of teaching them how to better manage their own
cognitive, emotional and behavioral responses to what others say and do, and what happens to them.
Along the way it seemed like picking a name for our groups would be appropriate. One of my kids suggested
"TOOL TIME". That's what we called our groups from that day forward.
So did all my kids do major turn-arounds overnight? No. That's not the way it works. They often took some steps
backward before taking steps forward. That's to be expected. Part of being human. Anyone who has ever tried to
change would know and appreciate that. But in the end, when it came time for the three oldest to graduate, THEY
DID. Even one who had dropped out before we started the groups. He even got the "Biggest Turn Around" award
at an all school assembly.
Obviously, my sample is small, and my experience limited. However, the work of Dr. Albert Ellis upon which this
approach is largely based has been proven to be one of the most effective approaches time and time again over
the last half of the last century, and since. For that work, Dr. Ellis was voted the second most influential
psychologist in history by his peers in the US and Canada. (Only Carl Rogers beat him)
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