Finding Value in Children and Youth Who Feel They Have no Value

No Disposable Kids

Finding Value in Children and Youth Who Feel They Have no Value
A review and summary of: Larry K. Brendtro, Arlin Ness, and Martin Mitchell, No Disposable Kids.  Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2001.


Inspired by a famous statue of Janusz Korczak at the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the title “No Disposable Kids” came to the authors.  Dr. Korczak founded an orphanage in Warsaw, Poland, for troubled Jewish street youth.  Even in the Warsaw Ghetto, Janusz Korczak refused to abandoned “his” children, choosing to accompany them in the protest of quiet dignity to the gas chambers of Treblinka.  Of course, Yad Vashem itself is a memorial of one of the darkest moments in history, the Holocaust, of which one-quarter of its civilian victims were children.

Nowadays, many troubled children and teens with challenging behavior problems are being written off  The authors, of Starr Commonwealth, in the same spirit refuse to abandoned the children in their care.  School disciplinary and juvenile justice systems too often rely on punishment, using power to control youngsters who are already rebelling because they feel they have no control.  This alienation, in an environment that does not respect these children, leads to trouble, via several pathways:

  • Hostile parenting in a toxic family environment, often as a result of economic and society pressures, family issues, and alcohol abuse
  • Cultures of disrespect in school, society, and peer groups, with all the negative messages children experience
  • Cycles of hostility created by a childhood where there is a lack of love and caring or, even worse, neglect and abuse
  • Ridicule and bullying in school
  • Negative peer cultures in antisocial groups such as gangs comprising troubled teens in need of acceptance
  • Lives interrupted from moving from home to home, school to school
  • Negative or morbid thoughts from clinical or situational depression.

In short, “children who hurt can become children who hate.”  As such, punishment will only exacerbate the hurt and behavioral consequences.  In addition, retribution rhetoric “becomes a false expression of masculinity and courage,” a form of demonizing youth rooted in sexism and enforced by fear, a form of violence.  Jane Addams wrote about the terrible conditions of the juvenile justice system at the turn of the last century.  In this book, the authors clearly spell out what is wrong with society, politics, schools, and the criminal justice system, exposing all the false beliefs and propaganda perpetuated by self-serving adults.  And too much of psychology is fixated on flaws and conditions and that these defined pathologies must be fixed or cured.  In short, “approaches that are repressive in character rather than reconstructive cannot succeed.”

What adults involved with children who are troubled need to do is to shift from a problem-based paradigm to one that focuses on opportunity.  The authors chronicle forward-thinking educators, from Johann Pestalozzi to Janusz Korczak to Ennis William Cosby, with a great deal of research in between.  What they share in common are:

  • Environments of respect where children and adolescents can thrive and grow with dignity
  • Connections by means of support and guidance through strong, positive relationships
  • Continuity, defined by a timeline sequence of antecedents, behavior, and consequences, with the aim of breaking the conflict cycle, where conflict escalates and leads to problem behavior
  • Dignity, emphasizing significance, competence, influence, and virtue
  • Opportunity, which is where the Circle of Courage comes in, consisting of four core principles for nurturing troubled children in a climate of respect of dignity: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

The aim is to build on children’s strengths; the fourth and final chapter discusses specific ways within the context of the Circle of Courage, introduced here and in an earlier work, Reclaiming Youth at Risk.  With empathy, understanding, and a positive philosophy of dignity and respect, there will not be any allowance for “disposable” children.

Finding Hope for and in Children and Youth

Reclaiming Youth At Risk

Finding Hope for and in Children and Youth
A review and summary of: Larry K. Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg, and Steve van Bockern, Reclaiming Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future.

In the early years of the 20th century, Swedish sociologist Ellen Key proclaimed the world was about to embark on the “Century of the Child.”  As time wore on, however, many scholars saw that the 1900s was anything but the century of the child.  Although child labor was becoming a thing of the past in the Western world, children were still subject to economic, physical, sexual, and emotional exploitation.  Troubled, “alienated” and “at risk” children have always been present, but there were few constructive ideas forthcoming in this new supposed age of enlightenment.  Many troubled teens and youths were being written off.

Professor Brendtro and his colleagues refuse to allow for any “disposable” children.  Drawing on progressive philosophies from both the European and Native American traditions, they proposed examining the lives and ways of these children through the lenses of “courage” and “discouragement” to “reclaim” the children much of society was willing to write off – “disposable kids,” to use the title of one of the author’s later works.  The word “reclaiming” came from Martin Wolins, a sociologist, who described it as comprising four elements:

  • Having a feeling of belonging in a supportive community
  • Being able to meet one’s needs for mastery, not the convenience of adults
  • Involving youth in determining their own future without engaging in that which society deems harmful
  • Having youth be caregivers, rather than being dependent on the care of adults.

Dr. Wolins edited the works of another pioneer in child welfare, Janusz Korczak; Dr. Korczak is quoted extensively for his ground-breaking philosophy on the importance and responsibility of adults to see the world of the child from the child’s perspective.

Courage and discouragement—The seeds of discouragement leading to alienation come from four “ecological hazards” in the lives of youth at risk:

  • Destructive relationships, in which a rejected child is hungry for love but unable to trust adults, for fear of being hurt again
  • Climates of futility, which are expressed by the sense of powerlessness many disaffected youth feel and often express in defiant or rebellious behavior
  • Loss of purpose, where youth—too often portrayed by society as self-centered—feel overwhelmed or lost in a turbulent sea of confusing (and conflicting) values.

All too often, society puts the blame on these children, giving the “problems” a negative label, each of which elicits negative responses.

Discouragement must be replaced by courage.  Borrowing from multiple Native American cultural philosophies of child rearing, the authors present The Circle of Courage.  The Circle of Courage seeks to build on four basic components of self-esteem: significance, competence, power, and virtue.  The circle is made up of four components arranged in a continuous circle:

  • The spirit of belonging. Everyone needs to belong to a community and have the chance to cultivate the skills necessary to live with others in harmony.  These real communities are important to keep at-risk youth from joining “artificial” communities such as gangs in their quest for belonging.
  • The spirit of mastery. Everyone needs to cultivate the wisdom and self-control to feel in control of their environment; to feel competent, all at-risk youth must be encouraged in their competency.
  • The spirit of independence. Everyone needs a sense of autonomy and control over their destiny, with the accountability that comes with it.  However, if a child is to be taught responsibility, he or she must be treated with maturity and dignity.  Moreover, such an education does not preclude nurturing.
  • The spirit of generosity. Everyone should know the value of sharing and empathy and be part of a community that embraces these values.

When there is a break in one of these components, the entire circle needs mending.  Say the authors, “Discouragement is courage denied.”  A break in the circle occurs when normal values become superseded by distorted ones or the opposites or absence of the good values.  Repairing a break requires a combination of forgiveness and reparation on behalf of the person who went astray, to restore the confidence and harmony of the community.  The authors quote Korczak:

   We fail to see the child, just as one time we were able to see the woman, the peasant, the oppressed social strata and oppressed peoples.  We have arranged things for ourselves so that children should be in our way as little as possible…. A child’s primary and irrefutable right is the right to voice his thoughts, to actively participate in our verdicts concerning him.

To follow this philosophy, according to the Part III, The Reclaiming Environment, four fundamental elements of the reclaiming environment must be considered:

  • Relating to the reluctant—establishing positive relationships with alienated youth
  • Brain-friendly learning—using teaching methods that reverse patterns of failure and futility
  • Discipline for responsibility—countering irresponsibility and rebellion by fostering positive youth involvement
  • The courage to care—encouraging prosocial values and behavior in at-risk youth engaging in self-centered behavior and rebellion.

Any intervention should use discipline, which stresses positive solutions, over punishment, which falls back on control and punitive measures that do not allow for any sense of control or responsibility, of “ownership.”  For adults, to reclaim lost youth and do justice to Ellen Key’s vision, adults need to follow the sentiment Korczak expressed in his Ghetto Diary, “I exist not to be loved and admired, but to love and to act.”

Elizabeth Farrell – The Teacher Who Made Education Special

special education, disabilities, rights of the child, farrell, special needs

“It is the boast of Americans that every child has the opportunity of school education, but it is true that many children—through no fault of their own—get nothing from education.  Not education, but the right education should be our boast.”  A young lady, born and raised in a small town in upstate New York knew she had a mission in life.  She was fortunate to have grown up in a stable family as a daughter of hard-working Irish immigrants and to have had a fine college education.  Elizabeth Farrell had gifts; she decided she needed to share them with children who were less fortunate than she had been.

Early Lessons
   The children Farrell spoke of were not only impoverished, they also had cognitive and physical disabilities.  At the time, most educators and policymakers felt that these children could not be educated or, at best, taught only the most rudimentary skills.  Farrell’s statement is remarkable in three ways: that the children of the very poor deserved the same quality education as their richer peers, children with intellectual disabilities should benefit from a rich educational experience by knowledgeable and dedicated teachers, and these children and young adults should be with their regular peers to the greatest extent possible.

To be sure, certain events influenced Farrell.  She admired her own teachers from the Utica Catholic Academy, the Sisters of Charity, for their work with the sick and needy.  After she graduated the academy, she enrolled at the Oswego Normal & Training School, whose curriculum was based on the pedagogy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the Swiss educator who worked with the children of the very poor.  This young lady took these lessons and set out to teach in New York City’s Lower East Side, one of the toughest neighborhoods in America in 1899.  And one of the toughest schools was Public School Public School Number One, the Henry Street School.   It was there Elizabeth Farrell met Lillian Wald, the person who founded the adjacent Henry Street settlement, a boarding house that cared for and taught the children of the very poor.

Elizabeth Arrives at Henry Street
   Many of the students at Henry Street were deemed “incorrigible” or “ineducable.”  The rote teaching of dry facts was difficult for most children, but for Elizabeth Farrell’s population, it posed an unsurmountable obstacle.  Farrell set out to find “the right education—the kind of teaching… [the special student] needs, therefore which he accepts.”   Under the watchful but supportive eyes of her principal and senior administrators, Farrell set out to create her special-education curriculum, one adapted to the diverse needs of her pupils.  Farrell had the students engaged in meaningful manual tasks that would instill a love of work.  Like Jane Addams, Elizabeth Farrell expressed a strong disdain for a criminal justice system that entrapped so many children in a sordid world of adult crime.  “The school, now more than ever, must compete with its only real competition, the street,” she said.

Separate Is Not Equal
   With the backing of the New York City School board, Elizabeth Farrell traveled to England to study similar schools there.  Although she admired the dedication of many of the teachers, she was disturbed by how “defective children” were placed not only in separate classes, but in separate schools entirely.  Back in New York, Elizabeth Farrell was inspired to embrace a more inclusive setting—her students with special needs would be included within existing schools, though her classes would be “ungraded.”  A classroom would comprise students of multiple ages and levels of cognitive development, and pupils would be taught according to their abilities rather than merely their chronological age.  Farrell also recognized that children unable to do mathematics may excel in another area, such as reading.  Moreover, Farrell declared that gifted children should observe the ungraded classes to see first-hand “that to each has been given a talent, and that this group of ‘different’ children have contributions to make to life a t the school were no less valuable because they are unalike.”  Her philosophies that children have diverse talents and abilities and that they have much to offer one another would form the foundation of inclusion under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, where all students had the right to a full public education.

On the New York City School Board
   Elizabeth Farrell went on to serve in various administrative capacities with the New York City School Board, where her greatest challenge was finding and recruiting new special-education teachers.  However, a shortage of qualified teachers did not stop Farrell from maintaining very high standards; she instituted comprehensive written, oral, and practical examinations for applicants and only those who already had at least three years of teaching experiences.  In return, Farrell advocated for salary increases for teachers of ungraded classes.

Elizabeth’s Accomplishments Beyond Teaching
   After her tenure with New York City School Board, Farrell and colleagues joined the American Psychological Association, with the aim of aim of drafting an objective guide principals could use in classifying children for ungraded classes.  Memories of her confrontation with H.H. Goddard years earlier were still fresh; she was alarmed at Dr. Goddard’s philosophies of the genetic origin of “feeblemindedness,” especially as applied to certain ethic groups (at a time when the eugenics movement was gaining ground).  She also decried Dr. Goddard’s exclusive use of IQ tests for evaluating students, a practice in recent years condemned as racist and declared illegal.  Farrell was also one of the founding members of the National Education Association (NEA) and one of its earliest presidents.  After her attempts to establish a division within the NEA devoted to special education failed, she was undeterred.  In 1922, she created the Council for the Education of Exceptional Children, known today as the Council for Exceptional Children.  It is the foremost professional and advocacy organizations devoted to teaching the atypical child.