School survival skills


Eighth-graders at Burleigh Manor Middle School took a day away from academics Monday, but not for fun and games.

Serious issues such as bullying and teasing, conflict resolution, and low self-esteem that can lead to isolation, alienation, anger and acting out were addressed in the pilot project "Children Achieving Power."

The goal of CAP, said school psychologist Chandra McKnight, is "to make children more aware of the uniqueness of each one of them and to recognize that despite the differences we have, that each one of us has something wonderful to contribute to the world.

"We want to make sure our kids are sensitive to everyone's needs and have the skills to cope and the resources that they need should bullying occur," McKnight added.

Groups of pupils viewed and discussed the film "Surviving High School" in the morning. After lunch, children participated in three of 15 small-group learning sessions designed to build self-understanding and coping skills. The daylong program was completed with an evening presentation for parents and the community by a speaker experienced in working with adolescents.

Last year, staff members at the Ellicott City school became concerned by an escalation in bullying incidents. In addition, news reports about school shootings nationally and a suicide this school year of a Centennial High School student who had been teased by her peers moved the student services committee to action, McKnight said.

"It really hit home here," she added.

Principal Barbara Hoffmann, teacher and parent liaisons, and health, mental health and guidance counselors worked on the project, gathering professionals throughout the county to present workshops and facilitate discussions.

Hoffmann said addressing the developmental and emotional needs of middle school children enhances academic achievement. The changes experienced by children during the middle school years are sometimes forgotten in the push for academics, she said.

"We can't ignore what our kids are thinking and feeling. If a child can't feel good when he's here at school, how can we expect him to learn?" Hoffmann said.

"Surviving High School" depicts youths from various peer groups in a high school dealing with topics such as stereotypes, fitting in, safety, popularity, attractiveness, drugs and alcohol, and getting along with parents. The students in the movie go through a process of team building to discover how each can make a difference.

Staff members said some pupils were moved by the movie, while others said it was like a soap opera. School nurse Sheila Morrison said the movie was so realistic that some pupils might be afraid to deal with the issues raised. Hoffmann spoke with one boy who said cliques, harassment and nasty words existed at the school last year but he felt the situation had improved.

The workshop "Standing Up for Yourself" taught the value of being assertive. "Why is it important to be assertive?" asked the leader. Pupils worked in small groups with a dry erase board to answer the question. It shows you have self-respect, said one group. Another said people would not take advantage of you.

Another workshop, "If Lima Beans Would Be Illegal," emphasized team building, empathy and communication through a series of hands-on, small-group exercises. The workshop is based on the book by Robert Bender, "Lima Beans Would Be Illegal: Children's Ideas of a Perfect World," which is a collection of quotes from children.

Burleigh Manor pupils wrote their own sentences describing their perfect world. Some were humorous, such as a mother not embarrassing kids in public, or getting everything for free. Controlling time, no discrimination and no diseases were some of the more serious wishes.

Barbara Moore, parent of an eighth-grader, said pressures on today's youths are different than those their parents faced at the same age. There is some denial among parents about issues such as drugs, alcohol, sex and eating disorders, said Moore, adding that the dividing line between urban and suburban problems is gone.

Educators hope CAP will serve as model for other schools in the county.

Morrison says the main lesson she hopes children retain from CAP is that they can make a positive difference in someone's life.

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