October 11, 2007

(+++) 10-DAY MIRACLES?

10 Days to a Bully-Proof Child. By Sherryll Kraizer, Ph.D. Marlowe & Co./Da Capo. $14.95.

10 Days to a Less Distracted Child. By Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. Marlowe & Co./Da Capo. $14.95.

      The culture of “I want it and I want it now” has even extended itself to serious issues of childhood behavior and development, as the titles of these books indicate. If it were really possibly to solve bullying and attention-deficit problems in a week and a half, parents wouldn’t be the only ones lining up for the answers – they’d have to shove aside the teachers, administrators, psychologists and counselors trying to get those solutions first. So it pays to take the titles here with a few grains of salt, then look at the books’ content for nuggets of wisdom – without expecting magic-wand solutions to serious difficulties.

      In the case of 10 Days to a Bully-Proof Child, the book’s approach is based on Sherryll Kraizer’s “Take a Stand” program, which is in use at some schools around the U.S. Intended to provide a practical method of stopping bullying and other forms of interpersonal violence, the program works primarily by having parents enact role-playing scenarios with their children – so the kids are better prepared when similar situations crop up in real life. After briefly explaining forms of bullying, psychological research on bullies and reasons kids don’t report bullying, Kraizer uses a question-and-answer format to help parents address specific issues involving being bullied – or being a bully. Her basic concepts for a child being bullied involve building his or her confidence, dealing directly with fear and anxiety, role-playing, then talking daily with the child about what worked and did not work that day and what tactics need to change. In a laboratory environment, this step-by-step approach makes sense; and Kraizer’s program has certainly enjoyed some real-world success. But there are significant difficulties with it that she does not address. It is by no means simple to get a shy or timid child (a frequent target of bullies) to admit fear and go through role-playing once – much less day after day, making modifications time after time as plans work or fail. Kraizer acknowledges that adult intervention may be needed sometimes, but provides no very good guidelines as to when. She also acknowledges that such intervention may fail (but not that it may make the bullying significantly worse, which it may). When failure does occur, all she can suggest is ongoing monitoring, logging of contacts with school personnel, calling police if necessary, and similar high-profile interventions that will take a good deal more than 10 days and are by no means assured of success. Similarly, for parents whose children are bullies, the recommendations – to set limits, teach coping skills that do not involve bullying, and seek professional help if necessary – are well-meant but are not new, quick or certain to work. Kraizer has some very helpful ideas – the concept of developing an inner voice to counter and drown out a bully’s nasty comments is particularly good – but she does families a disservice by making only passing references to how incredibly time-consuming and difficult it can be to break the cycle of bullying.

      Jeffrey Bernstein, a licensed psychologist specializing in child and family therapy, sets a somewhat more modest goal in 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child, since being less distracted does not mean being cured of attention problems (including but not limited to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD). Bernstein, who wrote 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, applies some of the same techniques here that he used in the earlier book: understand what is going on, build kids’ confidence and self-esteem, and determine whether medication might help. One of the good things Bernstein does is to reassure parents: “Don’t be upset if you have to keep working at being patient. Patience may be a virtue, but having to scramble to find it does not make you a poor parent.” He tries to show parents how not to overreact or be overdemanding – to accept that a child is just as frustrated by attention problems as are his/her parents. Bernstein spends a fair amount of time explaining the distracted child’s legal rights in the educational system, and also offers lists of all sorts, such as “Thirty-Six Strategies for Teaching Distractible Children.” These approaches frequently contain valuable elements – for example, break down large tasks into small ones, keep being encouraging, and create emotional safety in the classroom (“It’s essential for teachers to pay attention to the emotions involved in the learning process”). But Bernstein’s ideas are more often ideals, difficult if not impossible to implement in a world of crowded classrooms that include many children with differing and often contradictory special needs – and time-pressed parents who may well be juggling more than one job and more than one child. There is a great deal of good advice here on a variety of subjects, from homework hassles to peer pressure. But there is little understanding of the extreme difficulty of implementing many of these good ideas in a world in which parents may not even have the time to get through the book in 10 days, much less try out all the many things it suggests.

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