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How to help your child cope with a learning disability

A learning disability is a problem that affects how a person processes, understands and uses information. Everyone has learning strengths and weaknesses, but people with learning disabilities have complex learning issues that persist throughout their lives. However, learning disabled students are as smart as – and can be even smarter than – the average student.

One can have a superior IQ yet still have cognitive challenges. Being learning disabled does not directly correlate with a lack of intelligence or motivation. LD students manage information differently because they have a neurological processing challenge that interferes with their ability to master specific concepts when taught in a traditional manner.

Learning differences can take on multiple forms. Some students have difficulties getting content into the brain. These children struggle with information integration, such as the ability to organize, sequence, retrieve or infer meaning. Other students have difficulty getting information out of the brain. These children struggle with fine motor skills, such as handwriting, organizing thoughts on paper or finding the right words to express ideas.

Signs your child may have a learning disability

Knowledge acquisition is unique for each child, and difficulties can surface at any age. There are, however, some specific signs that may indicate your child learns differently. During the preschool years, look for language complications, such as acquisition difficulties or word pronunciation problems. Some young students may have struggles with coordination and finger use, finding simple tasks unusually frustrating. If any area of development feels delayed, check with a teacher to determine if an early intervention is needed.

As children enter the elementary years, subject area concerns often become more prominent. LD students may be able to master many skills but have difficulty grasping certain concepts. Frequent reading errors, constant misspellings or atypical troubles with basic math computations can be markers of a learning issue. In addition, some may experience social struggles and communication problems, which also affect knowledge acquisition.

Many learning disabled students, however, actually thrive in grade school. These kids often develop compensating strategies for their cognitive challenges. Elementary school teachers are also particularly talented at supporting individuals of all abilities no matter how they learn. By using multimodal teaching techniques, these professionals make academics more appealing to all students, no matter their learning style. But as these children mature, school tends to become frustrating.

For a small group, learning difficulties don’t surface until the middle or high school years. Classes become more challenging because students are asked to engage in higher-order thinking tasks, such as comparing concepts, linking previously taught ideas to new material and understanding complex relationships. Many struggle because they are unable to hold information in short-term memory and execute multistep tasks.

With teens, however, it can also be difficult to sort out typical distractions from true learning issues. Some students struggle with classroom attention, avoid homework and fail tests because they have no desire to do long division or read Jane Austen. Others put forth appropriate or even excessive effort, but still experience low grades. Review homework and look for unusual sequencing, overly sloppy work or excessively long completion times. Also, check on your child’s emotional state. School anxiety or a confidence crisis often can be the result of an unknown learning issue.

What parents can do to ensure kids get needed help

Trust your instincts and pursue assistance if you think there is a problem. Start by talking to your child’s teachers. Next, consult with your child’s doctor and rule out any medical concerns. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, work with a qualified educational specialist who understands learning issues. This expert will review academic records, interview the family and consult with the school. These professionals will also administer a comprehensive set of cognitive tests and academic assessments to develop a detailed learning profile and determine if a problem exists.

It can be upsetting for parents to consider the possibility that their child may learn differently. It is, however, important for families to own the problem, understand how their child thinks and learns, and seek the services they need. Don’t adopt a wait-and-see approach. Be proactive in addressing the problem. With intervention, advocacy and support, LD students succeed in school, college and life.

By Russell Hyken

24 January 2017



The joy of junk

At a time of increasing debate over the extent of children’s use of screen-based technology, for many child professionals, the three-dimensional, messy enjoyment of children making things with their hands from pieces of scrap is more important then ever. Here, Ben Tawil, a senior lecturer in play and playwork, talks about the timeless pleasures and many benefits of junk modelling and non-directive play:

I feel like I grew up on junk modelling; it was the go-to activity for just about every club I ever attended in my early years and primary school days.

From Sunday school to summer club, everywhere I went had a huge box full of junk and every parent that dropped their kids off would be weighed down with even more donations. Cardboard tubes, old bobbins, lengths of material, cardboard boxes, bags of dried leaves and a vast array of what looked like scraps of waste.

Junk modelling was ace; everyone seemed to enjoy it. We used copious amounts of glue and tape to fashion monsters big and ugly. We made vehicles, rockets and space stations. We had adventures in outer space, were cops and robbers, or mechanics carefully repairing cars. We made houses with rooms and furniture, crafting domestic ideals, often to be played with in some form of pretend play, but equally often forgotten the moment we felt they were complete. We made swords and guns and fought valiantly to the death in service of our king and country, or our damsels in distress.

Child development

Junk is cheap. The stuff to fix it together is inexpensive, and we know even more now than what my childcarers knew then. Non-directive toys, materials, props, equipment and so on leave space for the child to exercise their creativity and inventiveness.

Combining disparate materials, for example toilet rolls and a shoe box to make a robot is problem solving. More to the point, it is divergent problem solving, which is a higher-level thinking skill.

We also understand now that play is about process much more than it is about product. The adaptability of junk, and the fact it can be used for different purposes and in different ways, helps support infinite process opportunities. The non-directive nature of junk means what is needed to make a robot one day, may be the exact same thing used to make a space station the next.

Non-directive play

Settings that provide junk provide variability, flexibility and adaptability. When children can engage with environments and resources like this in their play they can express their creativity, innovation and cognitive ability.

Children can create and solve problems, and as a result generate feelings of motivation and reward. This in turn supports them to develop self-confidence, self-concept and identity. With these materials they practice complex skills from fine and gross locomotor skills to higher executive functioning; skills such as sequencing, hypothesis testing, analysis and evaluation.

The immersion and ownership of their play is increased and therefore children are more likely to try to resolve problems for themselves. This will help develop intra-psychic capability (self-reliance) and support the development of a growth mind set (a belief in one’s self as a learner and thinker).

Flexible behaviour

Junk modelling, loose parts play or heuristic play all work on the principle that non-directive materials support a greater degree of flexible behaviour and as such support innovation and creativity.

Parents want the best for their kids but sometimes they haven’t been privileged enough to know this sort of information. So, let them know and they are sure to be very happy about this sort of play next time their Easter craft comes home with a monster head, a sword and is driving an all-terrain vehicle!

By Ben Tawil

24 January 2017

Ben Tawil is a Senior Lecturer in Play and Playwork at Leeds Becket University.




Mental health support vital for very young, warns expert

When Sarah Maindonald began working as a counsellor 24 years ago, she saw teenagers struggling with mental health issues, but barely ever a child. Now, working across Christchurch primary schools as a counsellor, she regularly sees children aged 9 or younger dealing with anxiety or depression.

Many issues were earthquake-related, as children dealt with their own experiences, instability and stress within the family. But other problems were sparked by changes within the family, or changes to society. Children were also having to deal with technology and social media earlier, she said. "We've had young kids who have accessed pornography accidentally on their phones and are quite upset about it. We've had kids [11 or 12 years old or younger] receiving sexualised messages or requests for nude pics."

For some the problems played out in violence or aggression at school, while others withdrew into themselves and struggled to learn or concentrate, she said. But with no government funding available for in-school counselling until high school years, primary schools have to pay for it out of their already stretched teaching budgets, which only a few opt to do.

If children did not receive help early on, she was worried about where they could end up. Ten New Zealand children between the ages of 10 and 14 committed suicide in 2014. A 9-year-old girl killed herself last year in the bathroom of her Palmerston North school. Violence in schools is also growing. In 2014, 71 students were excluded or expelled from schools for physically assaulting school staff, compared with 57 the previous year.

Nationally, primary school principals and the NZ Association of Counsellors are lobbying the Government to fund counsellors in primary schools. But Maindonald said the need was even greater and more urgent in Christchurch, because community counselling services were so stretched already.

Even after an extra $20 million in government funding for Canterbury District Health Board mental health services, the amount available – $207 per person – was still well below the national average of $251 per person.

Home and Family Society Christchurch executive director Val Carter said the demand for its child counselling service had grown after the earthquakes, and was still rising. There had been no waiting list for the service until this year, but now there were 26 children waiting to be seen, on top of the 101 children and 22 youth the organisation was currently working with, she said.

That was likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, Canterbury University associate professor Kathleen Liberty said. She is conducting an extensive study following about 320 children through their first three years at school, and found at least one in five show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But she said only about 8 per cent were getting any kind of counselling.

She believed having counsellors based within schools was vital because the problems were so common. "Where there is an individual disaster, like a parent killed in a crash, the wider family and the school community can rally around to help. But when you have a community-wide disaster ... all the resources to help are stretched," she said.

Canterbury Primary Principals' Association president Jeanette Shearer said many teachers were struggling to cope. "It's not just one or two children in a classroom anymore," she said. "Some children just withdraw into themselves. They're not really engaging and they are not ready to learn. For other children there are behaviour issues and they become ... violent, and that's a real problem in the classroom."

She said Red Cross funding which paid for social workers in schools after the earthquakes had helped, but the programme's funding ran out early this year.

Issues at home, like family violence or a split between parents, could make a child more vulnerable to mental health problems, Maindonald said. But many had supportive families and good parents, she said. Often a child would talk to a counsellor about things they wouldn't tell their parents, she said. "If they're aware the parent is stressed sometimes ... they will [shield things from them] because they're worried about them," she said.

She said it was a difficult time to be a child, and they needed somewhere to get support. "I really feel for kids, because often families now are so busy trying to put food on the table just to survive. There are a lot of lonely kids out there, and they're more vulnerable," she said.

It was important to teach children ways to cope early, before they reached their teens and faced big decisions around things like drugs, alcohol, relationships and careers. "If you teach these kids [how to] communicate about feelings and how to seek help, if those are embedded when they're young they're lifelong investments," she said.

By Gabrielle Stuart

24 January 2017 



Large scale study highlights challenges faced by children with ASD in early school years

Do you remember a teacher who changed your life for the better? Many people do, and scores of studies suggest that positive student-teacher relationships are one of the best predictors of children's academic success.

But young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are less likely to develop positive relationships with their teachers than typically developing kids do, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This exacerbates an already challenging transition into elementary school for these children. The researchers hope that by understanding – and ultimately improving – these relationships, educators can support children with ASD in their early school years and help them make long-term gains in their academic, behavioral, and social adjustment.

This study, "Smooth Sailing," has been supported by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. UCR's Jan Blacher and her team have spent the past four years studying 200 children with ASD as they move from pre-kindergarten into elementary school, tracking student-teacher relationships, children's emotional behaviors, and parental support. Children in the study ranged from 4 to 7 years old, with about 85 percent of them having what professionals call "high functioning autism," meaning they don't also have intellectual disabilities. The results are newly published or forthcoming in five new papers in journals in the field, including the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders; Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities; and Remedial and Special Education.

Blacher, a Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center in UCR's Graduate School of Education, said that behavior problems and social skills deficits, which accompany many ASD diagnoses, are one reason that students and their teachers fail to build strong mutual relationships. Externalizing behaviors, such as aggression, increase conflict, while internalizing behaviors, such as anxiety, can reduce the closeness between teachers and students.

"When children with autism come to school, they are already struggling to make social and emotional connections, and when that affects their relationships with teachers it feels like a double whammy," said Blacher, who has shown in previous research that many children with ASD feel lonely at school. "A major goal that follows from this research is educating and supporting teachers so they understand how important their interactions with children are during this transitional time."

Blacher's group also noted that one cause of behavior outbursts or other instances of "acting out" during the early school years may be an inability for children to control their anger or emotions. Such poor emotional regulation is common in children with ASD.

Blacher notes: "Many intervention programs used by schools focus heavily on behavior management, but we found that supporting emotional regulation is an important tactic in helping children develop interpersonal relationships and complete school activities. Helping children with ASD take charge of their emotions before they manifest as behavioral problems will go a long way in helping students build positive relationships with their teachers."

Blacher said the team also studied parents' roles in helping children make the transition into school, finding that shared reading increased children's knowledge of contextual language and vocabulary.

"These shared learning experiences are social in nature and help support children as they encounter similar activities in the classroom. Early literacy is a strength for children with high functioning ASD, so this should be encouraged, as it gives the children something to be proud of. One hopes that increasing literacy skills will also lead to better classroom adjustment and, in turn, to more positive teacher-student relationships," Blacher said.

13 January 2017




Many youth with ADHD given antipsychotic drugs: study

One in 20 Ontario children and youth have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and many are prescribed antipsychotic drugs, despite having no other mental health diagnoses, researchers have found.

A study by the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences found almost 12 per cent of kids and youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, were prescribed antipsychotics like Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel.

"When we looked at the information on the children and youth with ADHD who were prescribed antipsychotics, a very, very small number of them had a condition where you would expect the use of an antipsychotic – conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia," said senior author Dr. Paul Kurdyak, head of the mental health and addictions program at ICES.

As its name suggests, ADHD causes such symptoms as difficulty concentrating on tasks and restlessness, which can have major implications for school achievement, no matter a young person's intellectual capabilities, Kurdyak said.

To conduct the study, published Wednesday in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers took a random sample of health records for 10,000 Ontarians aged one to 24 and examined data relating to ADHD and other diagnoses, prescribed medications and health services utilized.

They found about five per cent – or 536 – of the children and youth had a diagnosis of ADHD. Males are two to three times more likely than females to be diagnosed with ADHD.

About 70 per cent of the young people with ADHD were being treated with drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, which are considered standard, first-line therapy for the common condition. About 20 per cent had also been prescribed antidepressants, "which isn't terribly surprising because depression and anxiety commonly co-occur with ADHD," Kurdyak said.

"But the surprising finding to us was the 12 per cent of kids with ADHD who were prescribed an antipsychotic," he said, explaining that the medications have a sedating effect, which could help reduce disruptive behaviour.

However, these drugs can have adverse effects, such as causing significant weight gain. One study found kids gained almost 19 pounds on average after 10 weeks on the drugs – and the risk of developing pre-diabetes or diabetes.

"We don't know why these children and youth with ADHD are on antipsychotics, but there is a risk associated with early antipsychotic exposure, so we need to know more about why they are being used, so that the benefits can be weighed against the risks."

Mark Henick, national director of strategic initiatives at the Canadian Mental Health Association, said it's known that some doctors prescribe antipsychotic medications for ADHD, and he's concerned about the high level of use in young people with the disorder.

"They're not indicated for ADHD and there's not a lot of evidence that they work for ADHD," he said Wednesday. "In fact, there's good evidence that they could be harmful."

The ICES study shows that people who go to a psychiatrist for treatment are more likely to be prescribed an antipsychotic, noted Henick, who was not involved in the research. "But it's often not appropriate in these kinds of cases, where we know psychotherapy is quite effective for ADHD."

However, he said it can be difficult for many families to arrange psychotherapy for a child with ADHD. Psychiatrists' services are covered by provincial health insurance, but they often have long wait lists as a result. Psychologists and other psychotherapists are typically far more accessible, but their services are not covered and must be paid for out of pocket.

"So you'd be looking at anywhere from $100, $150, $200, $250 an hour for psychotherapy for ADHD – and most families can't afford that."

Kurdyak said children and youth who experience continued ADHD-related behavioural issues that are making school and home life difficult need to have an integrated therapeutic plan beyond medications.

"You'd certainly want a child in that situation to have access to behavioural therapies that provide children and their families with coping skills so that they can manage their behaviours," he said.

 "We would like to see situations where kids, who are more complex, that the treatment they receive is comprehensive and aligned with their need and not simply the addition of an antipsychotic with all its risks."

By Sheryl Ubelacker

19 January 2017




How is food used to foster social relationships at school?

A more holistic approach to health promotion in schools could lead to empowered youth according to a study by a Massey University academic.

School of Public Health lecturer Dr Eva Neely spent a year at an urban secondary school for girls, observing and interviewing students and teachers about how they use food in everyday life, to better understand the social meaning of food amongst young people.

Dr Neely says she was dissatisfied when reading literature about young people’s nutrition, which she says was often narrow and negative.

“Young people are always put in a bad light, because they don’t adhere to the right fruit and vegetable levels, and they are deemed a big risk to our future health. I always felt it was really undermining, and very narrow, and it didn’t really take into account the whole picture,” Dr Neely says.

“Our strong focus on this physical health lifestyle approach really impacts on health holistically. I think a much better focus for looking at health in any population is a more holistic picture, looking at physical, mental and social health and how these aspects affect each other and how we can approach health promotion from more of an empowerment-based approach.”

Dr Neely says her personal interest in nutrition clashed with existing research, and she wanted to know more about the meaning of food for social health. “It’s not up to individuals always to make the right health choices, and not everyone can.”

Over a year, Dr Neely watched and spoke to teachers and 16-18 year-old students (Year 13), exploring the students’ everyday food practices including routines, rituals and habits. “The purpose of my paper is to fill the knowledge gap exploring how food rituals act as vehicles for young people to establish, maintain, and strengthen social relationships.”

While fully immersed at the school, attending three to five days a week, Dr Neely was able to observe the students’ eating habits and decision-making. They discussed “typical things you would think 16-year-olds are interested in, from boys, to things going on at school to other girls and other groups,” Dr Neely says.

“Relationships would seem to me to be one of the main things that matter to young people - where they stand, who are their friends - because they seem to be their primary support people during that quite vulnerable period. Those emerged as key things in their talk. Food emerged in these practices as something quite noticeable sometimes. For example, if people were in a mood or having a fight, they didn’t offer that person food as part of the group when offering food around.”

The findings include three food rituals highlighted as significant for young people in managing their social relationships. “Food rituals were used to build, maintain and regulate relationships. Gifting food was quite a big thing. There were often girls that had made cupcakes to bring and share with others or they made something for someone’s birthday. These were all really engrained practices linked to their relationships.

“The act of going for a walk to get lunch encouraged social interaction and was a means for young people to integrate into a new group, and ritualised food sharing involved negotiating friendship boundaries.”

Dr Neely says further research exploring how young people use food rituals in their everyday lives to manage social relationships is needed.

“A focus on social relationships in settings such as schools could broaden the scope of nutrition promotion to promote health in physical, mental, and social dimensions, and have wide-reaching implications for school health promotion.”

Fostering social relationships through food rituals in a New Zealand school was co-authored by Dr Eva Neely and Dr Mat Walton from the School of Public Health, and Professor Christine Stephens from the School of Psychology, and can be read here.

17 January 2017 



The toll poverty takes on children's mental health

Growing up in poverty exposes children to greater levels of stress, which can lead to psychological problems later in life, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Cornell University reported that kids who grow up poor are more likely to have reduced short-term spatial memory. The study also reported that such kids seem to be more prone to antisocial and aggressive behavior, such as bullying.

Poor children are also more likely than kids from middle-income homes to feel powerless, the study authors suggested.

Of course, the findings don’t mean that all children growing up in poverty will have these problems, only that the risk is higher, the researchers said.

“What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” study author Gary Evans, a professor of environmental and developmental psychology, said in a university news release.

The researchers said the negative psychological effects of growing up in poverty may stem from stress.

“With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,” Evans said. “And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So, for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”

For the study, the researchers monitored 341 children and young adults for 15 years. The participants were evaluated at four intervals: age 9, 13, 17 and 24.

The young people’s short-term spatial memory was tested by asking the older participants to correctly repeat a series of complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in a certain order.

Those who grew up in poverty were not able to perform this task as well as those from middle-income backgrounds.

“This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement,” the study authors wrote.

The study participants were also asked to solve an impossible puzzle to assess their sense of helplessness. The adults who grew up poor gave up 8 percent more quickly than those who weren’t impoverished as children. The adults who grew up in poverty were also more likely to agree with statements, such as, “I argue a lot” and “I am too impatient,” than those who didn’t.

The study also found that adults who grew up poor had higher levels of chronic physical stress throughout childhood that lingered into adulthood.

The study’s findings may have broad implications since children who grow up poor tend to remain poor as adults, Evans noted. About 40 percent of sons have incomes similar to their fathers, the researchers said.

“People walk around with this idea in their head that if you work hard, play by the rules, you can get ahead,” Evans said. “And that’s just a myth. It’s just not true.”

To prevent these psychological problems, poor children likely need help early in life. “If you don’t intervene early, it’s going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene later,” he contended.

Evans said one possible way to reduce poor children’s exposure to stress and reduce their risk for psychological problems may be to boost their family’s income. One way to do that would be to create a safety net for poor families with children, similar to Social Security’s supplemental income for the elderly and disabled, he said.

“It’s not true you can’t do anything about poverty. It’s just whether there’s the political will, and are people willing to reframe the problem, instead of blaming the person who is poor and even more preposterous blaming their children,” he said.

“This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the kind of data this study is showing,” he said.

“Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not,” Evans said. “But I think we could change it dramatically.”

The study was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences.

By Mary Elizabeth Dallas

10 January 2017



Adults struggle with positive outcomes years after juvenile detention, study finds

Children who have been admitted to a juvenile detention center often struggle with a range of issues years after being detained, according to results from a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

The longitudinal study affords a rare look at how youth who experienced juvenile detention fared in terms of eight positive outcomes five and 12 years after detention.

The eight domains included the following: educational attainment, residential independence, gainful activity, desistance from criminal activity, mental health, abstaining from substance abuse, interpersonal functioning, and parenting responsibility.

A team of researchers from Northwestern University tracked more than 1,800 youth who were admitted to the Cook County Detention Center in Chicago from 1995 to 1998. The average of youth of these youth was about 15 years old.

In interviews both five and 12 years after detainment, the study attempted to determine if these youth had attained age-appropriate psychosocial outcomes in the years after detention, and how much these outcomes varied by race and sex.

According to analysis, only 21.9 percent of males and 54.7 percent of females had attained positive outcomes in the eight domains. Of all groups surveyed, African Americans were the least likely to achieve positive outcomes in the years after detention.

Robert Sampson, the Harvard sociologist who has written about both life-long trajectories of delinquent youth and spatial inequality in Chicago, wrote an editorial comment on the study in the same issue of JAMA Pediatrics. The long-term consequences of detention for delinquent youth, or “the juvenile equivalent of re-entry among ex-prisoners,” remains a topic of little research, according to Sampson.

“Juvenile detention has operated in the shadow of adult incarceration,” Sampson wrote.

In their study, the Northwestern researchers say that longitudinal studies of youth incarcerated in juvenile facilities have generally focused on recidivism, rather than on how youth adjust to life after returning to their communities. They argue that pediatric health care professionals have a role to play in promoting psychosocial health among these youth.

“To improve outcomes, pediatric health care professionals should recognize the importance of psychosocial health, partner with on-site psychosocial services in their practices, and facilitate access to services in the community,” the researchers wrote.

By Jeremy Loudenback

4 January 2017



Yes, it’s your parents’ fault

We live in a culture that celebrates individualism and self-reliance, and yet we humans are an exquisitely social species, thriving in good company and suffering in isolation. More than anything else, our intimate relationships, or lack thereof, shape and define our lives.

While there have been many schools of thought to help us understand what strains and maintains human bonds, from Freudian to Gestalt, one of the most rigorously studied may be the least known to the public. It’s called attachment theory, and there’s growing consensus about its capacity to explain and improve how we function in relationships.

Conceived more than 50 years ago by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and scientifically validated by an American developmental psychologist, Mary S. Ainsworth, attachment theory is now having a breakout moment, applied everywhere from inner-city preschools to executive coaching programs. Experts in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, sociology and education say the theory’s underlying assumption – that the quality of our early attachments profoundly influences how we behave as adults – has special resonance in an era when people seem more attached to their smartphones than to one another

By the end of our first year, we have stamped on our baby brains a pretty indelible template of how we think relationships work, based on how our parents or other primary caregivers treat us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense, because we need to figure out early on how to survive in our immediate environment.

“If you’re securely attached, that’s great, because you have the expectation that if you are distressed you will be able to turn to someone for help and feel you can be there for others,” said Miriam Steele, the co-director of the Center for Attachment Research at the New School for Social Research in New York.

It’s not so great if you are one of the 40 percent to 50 percent of babies who, a meta-analysis of research indicates, are insecurely attached because their early experiences were suboptimal (their caregivers were distracted, overbearing, dismissive, unreliable, absent or perhaps threatening). “Then you have to earn your security,” Dr. Steele said, by later forming secure attachments that help you override your flawed internal working model.

Given that the divorce rate is also 40 percent to 50 percent, it would seem that this is not an easy task. Indeed, researchers said, people who have insecure attachment models tend to be drawn to those who fit their expectations, even if they are treated badly. They may subconsciously act in ways that elicit insensitive, unreliable or abusive behavior, whatever is most familiar. Or they may flee secure attachments because they feel unfamiliar.

“Our attachment system preferentially sees things according to what has happened in the past,” said Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist at Columbia University and the co-author of the book “Attached,” which explores how attachment behaviors affect the neurochemistry of the brain. “It’s kind of like searching in Google where it fills in based on what you searched before.”

But again, history is not necessarily destiny. Intervention programs at the New School and the University of Delaware are having marked success helping at-risk groups like teenage mothers change their attachment behaviors (often passed down through generations) and establish more secure relationships. Another attachment-based intervention strategy called Circle of Security, which has 19,000 trained facilitators in 20 countries, has also proved effective.

What these protocols have in common is promoting participants’ awareness of their attachment style, and their related sabotaging behaviors, as well as training on how to balance vulnerability and autonomy in relationships.

One reason attachment theory has “gained so much traction lately is its ideas and observations are so resonant with our daily lives,” said Kenneth Levy, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University who researches attachment-oriented psychotherapy.

Indeed, if you look at the classic categories of attachment styles – secure; insecure anxious; insecure avoidant; and insecure disorganized – it’s pretty easy to figure out which one applies to you and others in your life. The categories stem from tens of thousands of observations of babies and toddlers whose caregivers leave them briefly, either alone or with a stranger, and then return, a test known as the “strange situation.” The labels can also apply to how adults behave toward loved ones in times of stress.

Secure children get upset when their caregivers leave, and run toward them with outstretched arms when they return. They fold into the caregiver and are quickly soothed. A securely attached adult similarly goes to a loved one for comfort and support when they, say, are passed over for a promotion at work or feel vulnerable or hurt. They are also eager to reciprocate when the tables are turned.

Children high on the insecure anxious end of the spectrum get upset when caregivers leave and may go to them when they return. But these children aren’t easily soothed, usually because the caregiver has proved to be an unreliable source of comfort in the past. They may kick and arch their back as if they are angry. As adults, they tend to obsess about their relationships and may be overly dramatic in order to get attention. They may hound romantic interests instead of taking it slow.

Insecure avoidant children don’t register distress when their caregivers leave (although their stress hormones and heart rate may be sky high) and they don’t show much interest when caregivers return, because they are used to being ignored or rebuffed. Alternatively, a parent may have smothered them with too much attention. Insecure avoidant adults tend to have trouble with intimacy and are more likely to leave relationships, particularly if they are going well. They may not return calls and resist talking about their feelings.

Finally, insecure disorganized children and adults display both anxious and avoidant behaviors in an illogical and erratic manner. This behavior is usually the lingering result of situations where a childhood caregiver was threatening or abusive.

Tools to determine your dominant attachment style include the Adult Attachment Interview, which is meant to be administered by a clinician, or self-report questionnaires like the Attachment Styles and Close Relationships Survey. But critics said their accuracy depends on the skill and training of the interviewer in the case of the former and the self-awareness of the test taker in the latter, which perhaps explains why you can take both tests and end up in different categories.

“It can also be possible that people should be viewed as along a continuum in all categories,” said Glenn I. Roisman, the director of the Relationships Research Lab at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

"It’s worth noting that just as people in the insecure categories can become more secure when they form close relationships with secure people, secure people can become less so if paired with people who are insecure. You need social context to sustain your sense of security,” said Peter Fonagy, a professor of psychoanalysis at University College London.

He added that having secure attachments is not about being a perfect parent or partner but about maintaining communication to repair the inevitable rifts that occur. In the daily battering of any relationship, Dr. Fonagy said, “if free flow of communication is impaired, the relationship is, too.”

By Kate Murphy

7 January 2017

Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston who writes frequently for The New York Times.



Corporal punishment viewed as more acceptable and effective when referred to as spanking

Parents and nonparents alike feel better about corporal punishment when it's called 'spanking' rather than 'hitting' or 'beating,' according to a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Study participants judged identical acts of a child's misbehavior and the corporal punishment that followed it, but rated the discipline as better or worse simply depending on the verb used to describe it.

Discipline acts referred to as spank and swat were ranked as more effective and acceptable than those referred to as slap, hit or beat.

The findings of the study indicate that people buffer negative views of corporal punishment by calling it by a more culturally acceptable label, said psychologist Alan Brown, psychology professor at SMU and lead author on the research.

"Our findings suggest that the way child-discipline is described may alter the action's implied intensity or physical harm, and its consequences such as emotional upset," Brown said. "Calling a response to misbehavior a 'swat' may imply higher prevalence of that response as well as make it seem more justifiable and valid – even if the actual punishment is the same as an act described more harshly."

Participants in the study rated the acts after reading and responding to hypothetical scenarios in which a mom disciplined her misbehaving son. Spank rated highest for commonness, acceptability and effectiveness, while beat ranked the worst, he said.

"The labels that we give to our experiences can have a moderate to profound influence on how we interpret and remember these events," Brown said. "We found that altering the verb used to describe an act of corporal punishment can change perception of its effectiveness and acceptance of it."

One implication of the study is that public health interventions to eliminate corporal punishment should focus on changing the semantics of discipline to reduce or prevent violence, say the authors. They cite UNICEF's 2014 recommendation that "There is a need to eliminate words which maintain 'social norms that hide violence in plain sight.'"

The psychologists endorse replacing the verb spank with the verb assault, as suggested by other researchers in the field, which they say could change the perception of spanking and reduce its use.

Labels can buffer how actions are perceived

Research consistently has found that corporal punishment does emotional and developmental harm to children and fails to improve a child's behavior over the long run.

"Our belief is that it is never okay to discipline a child by striking them, and that various terms commonly used to describe such actions can buffer how these actions are perceived," Brown said. "Our research demonstrated that ratings of how common, acceptable and effective an act of corporal punishment appears to be is significantly influenced by the word used to describe it."

Co-author on the study was psychologist George Holden, a noted expert on parenting, discipline and family violence and co-author on the research and a professor in the SMU Department of Psychology.

The findings were reported in the article "Spank, Slap, or Hit? How Labels Alter Perceptions of Child Discipline" published in the journal Psychology of Violence.

The other co-author on the research was Rose Ashraf, a graduate student in SMU's Department of Psychology.

Holden is a founding steering committee member and current president of the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.

Study examined how different terms influence perceptions and actions

Participants were 191 nonparents and 481 parents.

The discipline scenarios were between a mom and her 5-year-old son. The mom and son varied with each scenario, which described a boy in eight acts of misbehavior: aggression, stealing, ignoring requests, deception, teasing, property destruction, animal cruelty and lying.

Study participants read each vignette of misbehavior, and the subsequent description of the mom's response using a term commonly reflecting corporal punishment: spank, slap, swat, hit and beat.

The authors selected the labels from the most commonly used terms in the research literature for corporal punishment in American culture.

The hypothetical scenarios were brief and left context and details such as the seriousness of the transgression or the intentions of the misbehaving child to the respondents' imaginations.

For example: "John continues to hit his sibling after his mother has asked him to stop. John's mother ______ him." The participants then rated the mother's response on how common it was, how acceptable it was and how effective it was.

The purpose was to examine how differences in the terms influence perceptions of parental discipline, the authors said.

"Our study highlights the role of language in legitimizing violent parental behavior," according to the authors in their article. "Altering the verb used to describe the same act of corporal punishment can have a substantial impact on how that parental response is evaluated, with some terms having a relative tempering effect (spank, swat) compared with others (hit, slap, beat)."

January 4, 2017


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