Too Good Today

  • The Impact of Media Violence on Youth

    portrait boyThe Emerging Trend in Youth Violence
    We need only look at recent school shootings and the increase of youth homicides to see the emerging trend of youth violence. These incidents raise the question as to how violence in the media plays a part in this trend. With advances in technology, youth today are exposed to ever increasing sources of media violence. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), studies have shown that children spend more hours a week watching television than they spend in school. By the age of eighteen the average American child will see in excess of 200,000 acts of violence in the media (AACAP). And The New York Times reports a study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence that shows youth who play violent video games and watch violent television shows are more likely to show signs of aggression and to argue with their peers and teachers.

    Media Violence and Youth
    There are a number of factors contributing to this correlation between violence in the media and youth violence. The AACAP points out young children especially may not be able to differentiate between fiction and reality, so they may view violence in the media as a norm. Television and movies may even depict heroes that employ violent techniques to conquer their enemies, perpetuating the idea that violence is an acceptable means to resolving conflict. Interactive media, such as the Internet and video games, further give youth the opportunity to engage in violent scenarios, albeit virtually. Youth who are exposed to negative norms, and who may not receive the positive guidance from their caregivers at home, would greatly benefit from exposure to positive role-modeling and instruction. Fortunately, school gives us the opportunity to offer such a solution. School is the ideal environment to implement an evidence-based program that will help youth learn and practice social emotional skills.

    How Can Social Emotional Skills Prevent Youth Violence?
    We must first aid children with the ability to differentiate between fiction and reality, so they can decide for themselves what truly represents a healthy norm. Furthermore, youth who develop self awareness and social awareness are more likely to take a responsible approach to resolving conflict. Effective communication skills allow youth to understand and to be understood by others, and emotion management skills help youth calm themselves down before they act on anger or sadness. Youth who practice empathy and a respect for self and others, as well as learn positive ways to bond with peers and adults, will resolve conflict peacefully. They will be equipped with the skills they need to successfully meet life’s challenges and model their own positive norms.

  • The Backlit World: Youth Dependence on Technology

    Teenagers Using Mobile PhonesA recent article in The New York Times highlights the growing youth dependence on technology. The Times reports that even though “Internet addiction is not yet considered a clinical diagnosis here, there’s no question that American youths are plugged in and tuned out of ‘live’ action for many more hours of the day than experts consider healthy for normal development.” And this type of distraction from real life comes with ramifications.

    Referred to by The Times as screen addiction, youth who are too attached to their televisions, computers, and smart phones might not be developing and mastering the social emotional skills they need for success in life.  The Times reports that in our contemporary culture such dependency starts early as children engage in technology rather than “observing the world around them and interacting with their caregivers.” Peer and caregiver bonding, as well as real-world experience, are all giving way to a simulated reality.

    This type of reliance on technology not only interferes with times when youth could otherwise be studying, but late night texting and other screen time may lead to sleep deprivation.  As The Times points out, schoolwork “can suffer when media time infringes on reading and studying” and technology is a “poor substitute for personal interaction.” Phone communication also steals youth of face to face interaction, which may result in overall isolation and loneliness, as well as compromised social skills.

    Youth need a healthy balance between their relationship with technology and their human interactions.  Such a balance is essential to the development of school and career readiness, because nothing can replace the skills youth learn through relating to others in person.  Youth inexperienced in social dynamics and human interaction are disadvantaged in higher education and workplace environments that depend on social competency for success.

    The first step in addressing youth’s overdependence on technology is simply to become aware of it.  Caregivers can encourage youth to engage in face to face interaction, rather than rely so heavily on technology. Educators can foster in youth the social emotional skills that will help them bond with peers and adults as well as self-regulate the time they spend with technology.  Each moment is an opportunity for us to reach beyond the technology divide, to model for children what it means to truly connect.

  • The Benefits of Writing Down Goals

    Close-up of a boy writing on paper with a pencilChildren who set reachable goals for themselves make an investment in their future.  As a result, they are more likely to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track toward their goals and resist negative influences that would deter them from reaching their goals.

    Six key steps can help students set and achieve their goals.  Students must begin by naming their goals. And when students write down their goals it concretizes them.  The results are so positive it is hard to believe something so simple can be so effective.  According to Forbes Magazine writer, Ashley Feinstein, a Harvard University study compared a body of students who had not set goals, students who had set goals but not written them down, and students who had set goals and written them down. They followed up with the class ten years later and found that the “3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined!”

    Furthermore, NPR recently featured a University of Toronto professor, Jordan Peterson, who conducted a classroom experiment with goal-setting and writing.  Peterson began with the “’goal-setting theory’ [which] holds that writing down concrete, specific goals and strategies can help people overcome obstacles and achieve.” He asserts writing positively influences students’ motivations to meet their goals.

    Peterson designed an undergraduate course that moved students through a series of writing exercises related to their goals.  The results proved positive, especially with at-risk students, to increase student retention rates and overall academic achievement.  One student, formerly involved in drug use, even proclaimed it turned her life around.  Peterson’s process encouraged students to “reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles."

    Once students have chosen a goal, picturing the goal as it is reached will help students define what they are aiming for.  A positive attitude goes a long way toward helping students reach their goals, so the next step is for students to say “I Can” to their goals.  With goals in place, students must then think of how to do it. This, again, is a place where writing is beneficial.  Making a checklist can help students tangibly keep track of their action steps. Which brings us to the next step—Go for it! Well-planned goals are ready to be reached.

    Once the goal is achieved, students can enjoy celebrating their success. Feinstein writes, “How will you celebrate once you’ve reached your goal?  As we journey to the realization of our goals, it’s important to remember our vision.”  Starting with a clear picture of the goal, as well as writing down the goal and writing the action steps in the process, keeps the vision alive.  Learning these best practices in school encourages students to aspire to academic success as learning becomes a means to a greater end.  Students not only have the satisfaction of meeting their goals but also the knowledge and confidence they need to keep setting and reaching increasingly complex goals as they grow older. With these goal-setting skills in place, students are emboldened to reach out to a galaxy of dreams.

  • The Effects of Stress on Student Learning

    Thinking happy kid in glasses with idea bulb aboveWe typically associate stress with the challenges of adult life: work responsibilities, family needs, and other conflicting or overlapping commitments that demand both attention and solutions.  It is safe to say that anyone facing numerous obligations and the stress to meet them can find the effort exhausting.  Students are not exempt from stress.  They face all forms of stress in their academic careers.  High pressure testing environments and increasingly formalized teaching structures are just a couple possible contributors, as well as the increasing social stresses that students face as they mature and navigate more complex social dynamics.  This raises the question as to how stress affects students’ overall academic performance and retention of information.  Scientific neuroimaging studies have shown that stress physically blocks students’ receptivity of information.  Judy Willis, MD, writes in Edutopia, “students' comfort level has critical impact on information transmission and storage in the brain.”

    There is a science behind why the brain does not absorb information under stress.  According to Willis, when the amygdala is overstimulated by negative stress, new information cannot physically pass into the areas of the brain responsible for memory.  Willis calls this phenomenon the “affective filter.” Additional neuroimaging studies have shown that the limbic system, along with chemical transmitters in the brain, more effectively retains information when students have greater levels of comfort in their learning environment.

    But what makes for a comfortable learning environment?  Willis says “brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging.  Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention.” The more we do to facilitate a positive and engaging environment for students, the more they will excel academically.

    Willis suggests that relevant lessons that encourage students to stake a claim in what they are learning keep students engaged.  An interactive learning environment promotes active student participation.  The Socratic Method, or the positive back and forth exchange between teacher and student, incentivizes students to develop better study and preparation habits.  Teaching strategies that rely on interactive and cooperative activities help students feel as if they are participating in their education, rather than serving as a passive recipient or storage device for information.  Today’s rigorous education standards often mandate a large quantity of knowledge be delivered in a limited amount of time.  The urgency of which can be stressful for both the teacher and the student.

    Students who participate in interactive lessons are more likely to stay engaged, speak their minds, and build confidence.  All of which reinforce learning to create a solid knowledge base.  Willis writes, “When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.” The result of such strategies makes for happier, healthier students whose minds are fertile for planting seeds of knowledge.

  • Inside Out: Exploring Emotions with Pixar

    Girl with different emotions

    Spoiler Alert: This article gives away plot elements of the Pixar movie Inside Out.

    I’m sure by now you have heard about, or maybe even seen, the new Pixar movie, Inside Out. The story follows a young girl named Riley as she faces the challenges of a cross-country move with her family. But the real stars of the show are the characters depicting Riley’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Dr. Janina Scarlet, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, writes in Psychology Today that “our emotions are all important, every single one of them. They all serve an important function and we cannot selectively feel some but not others.” And Inside Out brilliantly illustrates this importance.

    When Riley has difficulty adjusting to her new home, she tries her best to stay happy. In fact, her mother further insists they both need to stay strong for her father. At the emotion control center in Riley’s brain, Joy is notably the emotion predominantly in control, and she tries to keep Sadness contained. At one point, she draws a circle on the floor in an attempt to keep Sadness from interfering.  However, Dr. Scarlet explains that by numbing sadness “we also numb joy.  We need to openly experience all our emotions, and that includes sadness, as painful as it may be sometimes.”

    In the story, this co-numbing effect is illustrated with Joy and Sadness’s expulsion from the control station, leaving only Anger, Fear, and Disgust to man the control panel, while Joy and Sadness both try to find their way back.  On the exterior, we journey with Riley through her attempts to fit in and be happy in her new life.  She sets out to make new friends and join a hockey team, but as the circumstances of her new environment prove overwhelming, we continue to follow Riley as she boards a bus to run away to her old hometown.  On the interior, Joy and Sadness navigate challenges to try to rejoin Riley’s other emotions while coming to realize their joint role in protecting her as they inform her and those around her of what she is feeling.

    The film illustrates the effects of emotions that have not been appropriately identified, expressed, and managed, and learning to do so allows us to cue others as to how we are feeling.  Dr. Scarlet writes, for example, sadness can produce physical indicators such as “tears running down our face, the pupil dilation, the non-threatening posture.  These signals help others understand we are in need of help.” When we have this open dialogue, there can be a healthy exchange between our neighbors and us.

    In the end, we find the role of Sadness is as equally valuable as the role of Joy, for it is Sadness that allows Riley and her parents to reunite. When Riley shows sadness, her parents are empathetic to her struggles. Dr. Scarlet writes when “we stay with this individual and share our emotions together, the resonating effect can produce a healing experience.”Through appropriately identified, managed, and expressed emotions, we can understand and be understood, ultimately allowing us the opportunity to bond in meaningful relationships.

  • Youth Nonviolence: The Path to a Peaceful Future

    Kids holding hand

    Keeping up with current events often means facing the grim reality of youth violence in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2011, “32.8% of students had been in a physical fight one or more times during the 12 months before the survey” and “7.4% of students nationwide had been threatened or injured with a weapon.” These are alarming numbers to consider, ones that are difficult to ignore.

    The American Psychological Association outlines several motives for youth violence. Expression, manipulation, and retaliation are just some of those reasons. Perhaps most importantly, violence is a learned behavior. Youth who have not learned effective means of expression and who have been exposed to negative role modeling that normalizes violence as a means to resolve conflict are more likely to act on violent impulses. Youth exposed to the use of violence or aggression to resolve problems in the home  are more likely to adopt those norms to resolve their own problems. Furthermore, media and news events may perpetuate the normalization of violence as an acceptable means to resolve conflict.

    The road to mitigating conflict peacefully begins with youth learning healthy ways to express themselves. Youth who are able to identify and manage their emotions are better equipped to calm themselves down before anger or sadness begin to drive aggressive behavior. Likewise, these youth are more able to and more likely to then communicate what they are feeling with more peaceful results.They are also more likely to ask for help and to trust adults. Taking that a step further, youth who are able to identify the emotions of others are better able to prevent conflict by recognizing the circumstances that could result in a violent conflict and manage their own behavior accordingly. This awareness of self and others is a twofold approach for youth to practice pro-social bonding and to learn to differentiate between unhealthy and healthy relationship qualities.  Learning the difference between aggressive behavior and assertive behavior goes a long way in solidifying positive norms.

    If youth are not exposed to healthy role modeling in their homes, they may not know what makes for acceptable behavior. School is a place where they can learn essential social emotional skills, as well as find positive role models in their teachers and their peers. Activities that simulate real-life scenarios let youth practice the skills to identify and manage emotions, communicate effectively, and problem solve peacefully so they can ultimately assimilate those skills into their own lives.

    Violent acts happen, and  we cannot shelter youth from exposure to them. But youth equipped with strong social emotional skills and the ability to navigate relationships in healthy ways are more likely to apply prosocial solutions in the face of potentially violent situations.  With education, role modeling, and practice, youth can boldly embark on a path to a more peaceful future.

  • Early Learning Through Play

    Beautiful little kids playing with toy kitchen in the garden

    It’s that time of year when the days are growing longer and a trip to the beach may be on the horizon. The kids may be home for the summer, but they are learning essential skills even away from school. Amid sand castles and lemonade stands, the activities of child’s play continue the development of social emotional skills.

    Much research has been devoted to the study of early childhood learning through play, and the results show there is a wide spectrum of benefits. Children’s play is essential to the development of their social emotional and executive function skills in both the short and long-term.

    Pretend play with peers offers a particularly valuable element to social emotional learning.  It is most common for children ages 3-6 and involves taking on social roles and enacting narrative scripts.  According to Par Jane Hewes, PhD of the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Center, pretend play “fosters communication, developing conversational skills, turn taking, and perspective taking, and the skills of social problem solving – persuading, negotiating, compromising, and cooperating.” Though children often create their own scripts, parents and caregivers can foster such creative play by organizing and encouraging children to participate in skits and role-plays that will aid them in working together while learning the skills they need for their future success.

    Peter K. Smith, PhD and Anthony Pellegrini, PhD in the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development report a hypothesis that “pretend play enhances theory of mind development. Theory of mind ability means being able to understand (represent) the knowledge and beliefs of others; that is, that someone else can have a different belief or state of knowledge from yourself.” This type of peer interaction helps children try on different roles and learn how to express themselves, which in turn develops an awareness of self and of others.  With such skills, children develop empathy for their peers that will nurture their ability to engage in healthy relationship patterns.

    Whether participating in play within a school environment, at home, or on vacation, young children are continuously developing fundamental skills through their activities.  Caregivers and educators can provide opportunities for children to explore their environments and relationships with their peers by fostering the prosocial peer bonding that will ready them for success in life.

    So when you are at the beach this summer, take a closer look at that sand castle or that popular lemonade stand.  The skills your children used to build them will be the skills they use to build their successful futures.

  • Student Happiness and GPA

    e6238f5a-9990-4238-ba38-ea2f57ffef13A recent study headed by Christina Hinton, Ed.D. at Harvard Graduate School of Education “found that from elementary school to high school, happiness is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement.” The study measured student happiness against GPA and found happier students have higher GPAs.

    There are several ways we can cultivate student happiness. We can provide for them a safe environment where they in turn feel at ease exploring and learning. Once such an environment is established, students are more likely to forge meaningful relationships. According to Hinton’s study, bonding is an essential contributing factor to student happiness. Students “cited many reasons for their positive feelings, including feeling safe and comfortable at school and having secure relationships with their teachers and their peers.”

    Student feedback from Hinton’s study also reported that fun, positive feelings helped promote learning. Incorporating social emotional learning through interactive activities is a beneficial way for students to not only gain the opportunity for healthy bonding but also to have fun doing so.

    In practice, developing social emotional skills through cooperative learning designs, such as strategy games and role play, reinforces the concepts so students internalize what they learn.  Hands-on experience allows students to apply the skills, while paired and group activities encourage students to collaborate, make group decisions, develop relationship skills, and resolve conflict peacefully.  As a result, students develop a stronger sense of self-worth and self-efficacy to build the confidence that fuels academic success.

    Students who learn how to manage their emotions have the tools they need to cope with stress in a healthy manner. In the process of building these skills, students first learn to identify their own emotions; this is as simple as students learning to pay attention to the physical signals their bodies give them to indicate how they are feeling.  Then, students learn to recognize those signals in others. Activities that challenge students to “try on” a multitude of expressions help them connect how their own emotions physically feel with how those emotions appear on others’ faces.  Equipped to quickly recognize emotions in others, students learn to pause and consider their own feelings before they act and to develop empathy so they can react appropriately to the feelings of others.

    Teaching emotion management skills through interactive activities is a fun and effective way for students to learn to navigate their emotions and become more aware of self and others; both of which resolve stress and mitigate conflict. By building a safe and positive environment, as well as teaching the skills students need to bond with and relate to one another in a healthy way, students will be well on their way to academic success. It is no mystery why happy and healthy students make the grade.

  • Altruism and Social Emotional Learning

    Two hands reaching out

    Social emotional learning has been shown to heighten academic success, ready students for the workplace, and help prevent risky behaviors such as substance abuse and violence. Furthermore, researchers at the Greater Good Science Center say social emotional learning cultivates in students an innate human altruism. Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley professor and author of Born to Be Good, asserts “based on research in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience that we are also wired for good.” If we are wired for good, the theory is we need simply to harness that desire to act based on that hard-wired good.

    According to the Greater Good Science Center, much “compelling proof that we are wired for altruism, kindness, and compassion comes from numerous studies that demonstrate children as young as 14 months have innate altruistic tendencies, well before socialization can have a major influence on their development.” The Science Center cites 18-month olds who help other people without outside encouragement. In one case, seeing an adult who had his hand full of books, a toddler opened a cupboard for him.

    Still other researchers found “toddlers’ happiness levels increased significantly when they gave away one of their own treats rather than a treat that belonged to another person.” Toddlers’ positive feelings were reinforced by their desire to share their belongings with their peers. It is a sort of cyclical effect of the desire to do good deeds for others engendering good feelings which then prompts the further desire to do more good deeds.

    But how does this all tie back to social emotional learning? The development of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and empathy encourages children to bond with others in a meaningful way.  According to the Greater Good Science Center, “fostering social and emotional skills helps to build classroom and school environments that bring out our innate altruism.” Cooperative learning environments that reinforce and normalize cooperative behaviors in children, in turn inspire children to carry these behaviors out into the world. In this process of bonding, children are likely to find the desire to share and to give, reinforcing what Keltner calls the hard-wired altruism that lies within us.

  • National Prevention Week

    Mendez_I_Choose_PhotoWagner was so excited to participate in SAMHSA’s “I Choose” Project for National Prevention Week!  As we wrap up a week of spreading messages for prevention, we at the Mendez Foundation reflect on our origins, and we thought it would be fun to share with you a little of our history.

    Doing good work for the health and well-being of our children is nothing new for the Mendez Foundation. For more than thirty-five years, we've been developing and implementing prevention education programs K-12 that teach kids they are too good for drugs and violence. Our evidence-based, skill-building programs make a positive impact on the lives of students, teachers, parents, and community leaders nationwide.

    Charles E. Mendez established the C. E. Mendez Foundation in 1964 to support local charitable organizations serving underprivileged children and their families living in the Tampa Bay area. Following his death in 1967, Charles E. Mendez’s legacy and the Mendez Foundation were carried on by his family.

    In 1975, Charles E. Mendez, Jr., now President of the Foundation, grew concerned with the alarming growth of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use by young people. He refocused the Foundation's efforts to develop and deliver prevention education programs to address these substance abuse problems.  To that end, our own Prevention Specialists have been positive role models delivering Too Good for Drugs in Hillsborough County Public Schools since 1980.

    The Foundation's programs would be developed with this philosophy in mind: providing children age-appropriate, factual information about the negative health effects of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, combined with development of critical decision making and goal setting skills, delivered by professional educators who are positive role models, will result in better decision-making by our children.

    We also put our community stakeholder hats on when we put together fun, free family events like the Too Good for Drugs Walk and Kidfest and the I am Too Good for Drugs Junior Gasparilla Distance Classic events in Tampa.  Summertime in Tampa bridges the school years with the Summer Parks program in the City of Tampa Parks and Recreation Centers.

    Our social emotional learning skills-based prevention programs soon gained national recognition, and our curricula are currently used by over 3,500 school districts, community agencies, and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

    As prevention educators, we have a professional commitment to the careful development, rigorous testing, and on-going refinement of our programs. As an organization, we have a time honored commitment to ready children for success in school and in their future careers. It's our purpose and our passion.

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