Too Good Today

  • Still Growing

    The development and application of  social emotional skills, coupled with drug awareness education, inform teens of the serious negative consequences of underage drinking, substance use, and other risky behaviors, while preparing them to resist experimenting in the first place.  What until recently was not fully understood is underage drinking and substance use can alter the healthy development of the teenage brain with long-term consequences on aptitude executive function.

    A recent Fresh Air interview on NPR, featuring Frances E. Jensen, MD, discusses the topic of her new book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.  Her book explores the nuances of the developing teenage brain, and outlines the ways in which teenage substance use affects that development.  Jensen says, “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain.  They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.”

    Contrary to past myths of the physical resiliency of teens, current research shows the human brain is developing well into the twenties.  Therefore, underage drinking and substance use can potentially impair development and lead to permanent brain damage.  Jensen says “drinking can actually kill brain cells in the adolescent brain where it does not to the same extent in the adult brain.” The frontal cortex—the area of the brain directly related to memory and decision-making—is one of the last areas to develop.  Teens engaging in drinking or substance use risk compromising their level of executive function.

    Children equipped with solid social emotional skills sets, as well as an awareness of the negative consequences of underage drinking and substance use, are better able to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track to reaching their goals.  They realize there is much at stake, and they are well-informed to make choices that will keep them substance-free.

  • Speak Up... And Lend an Ear

    Effective communication skills are key to resilient living.  Communication is the means by which we interact with the world, and how we communicate plays a large role in determining the outcomes of our actions and relationships.  Children who communicate effectively are better able to make responsible decisions, stay true to their goals, and develop healthy relationships, because they can advocate their needs, seek help when necessary, and reject unhealthy pressures and influences.

    Dr. Carol Seefeldt writes in Scholastic that with effective communication skills “children can listen and learn from others, discuss ideas, and gain ever more knowledge of the world in which they live.” First, children must learn to differentiate healthy and unhealthy communication styles in order to adopt an effective communication style of their own.

    Our body language speaks to others before we even speak.  For example, an interviewee who enters an interview with slumped shoulders and averted eyes will come across too passive. However, an interviewee who enters the interview with good posture and direct eye contact will come across assertive. The interviewer will take this into consideration and formulate an impression before the interviewee has a chance to answer questions. By discerning between these two communication styles, children learn that assertive behavior is more direct and honest, thereby portraying a confidence and readiness to perform.

    Listening skills are also essential to effective communication. Children learn how to listen by mirroring those who listen to them, but an understanding of the role of non-verbal cues conveys a message to children as well. Dr. Seefeldt writes that educating children by “fostering the conventions of communication, helping children learn to look, to take turns, and to negotiate verbal conflicts” develops an understanding of what it means to empathize with others.  Teaching children to identify and adopt healthy listening skills, such as focusing on what the speaker is saying, smiling and nodding, and asking clarifying questions prevents miscommunication and facilitates stronger relationships.

    The above skills lead to the capacity to develop healthy relationships. As Dr. Seefeldt writes, “Children who look at the child they are talking with, who understand turn taking when communicating, and who know how to solve verbal conflicts are those who make and keep friends easily.” Effective communication helps children navigate challenging situations and peacefully resolve conflict. As a result, they are more likely to share their ideas and feelings with others, which promote enhanced cooperation and healthy bonding.

    Children who are ready to communicate effectively present themselves confidently in both manner and speech. They are emboldened to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track to reaching their goals, making friends along the way.

  • Stop to Think

    The road to healthy living begins with children setting reachable goals, but to stay true to that road children must learn to make responsible decisions.  Children face the challenges of external pressures every day, whether they are from community, peers, or media. Dr. Jim Taylor in Psychology Today writes that "children who are poor decision makers are ready prey to the inevitable bad decisions when they listen to popular culture." Therefore, it is essential for children to learn at an early age what it takes to make decisions that will keep them focused on their goals.

    The primary method children can use to make responsible decisions is to stop to give themselves time to think through the decision before they act.  Dr. Taylor states that children lack the experience of maturity so they "tend to make decisions that are impulsive and focused on immediate gratification." Because time is ultimately the only solution for gaining experience, we need to equip children with skills they can use until they gain that experience. Young children may benefit from such tangible practices as counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths before they speak or act.

    Developing decision making in children must be age appropriate.  It is crucial that we recognize the capacity for decision making that grows with age. Younger children can tackle simpler decisions whereas adolescents can begin to incorporate much longer term thinking, with multiple potential outcomes and consequences, into their calculus.  Thus, as we facilitate decision making, we should be mindful of this incremental process.

    Despite knowing to take time to think before they act, children often face peer pressure and peer influence that can challenge their decision making.  Dr. Taylor says that children under pressure "may know that doing something is stupid, but they may feel peer pressure to do it anyway." Children who develop a strong moral compass and conviction to attain their goals are more likely to make responsible decisions in the face of peer pressure. They will more carefully weigh the negative consequences of making poor decisions versus the benefits of making good decisions and how those consequences, good or bad, will affect their ability to reach their goals in the short and long run.

    Teaching responsible decision-making skills is easy, but learning these skills requires time and practice to incorporate them into everyday life.  A supportive learning environment that allows children to practice these skills and learn from mistakes can foster a confidence to take on more challenging decisions. This confidence in turn enables children to take on healthy risks and strive to reach more challenging goals.

    Children who learn from an early age to approach decisions in a thoughtful manner are better equipped to resist the influence of popular culture.  They are more likely to live confidently in each moment, because making responsible decisions brings assurance and peace of mind. Children who stop to think about their decisions are one step closer to reaching their goals.

  • Building Better Relationships

    As children enter adolescence, their minds and bodies are rapidly changing.  Adolescence marks the beginning of more complex relationships, including romantic relationships, as hormones begin to rage and social influences to begin dating strengthen.

    Because teens are greatly influenced by the role models at home and in their communities, it comes as no surprise that we see teens exposed to violence at home or in their communities express similar behavior in their own dating relationships.

    The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently released research on current teen dating violence trends, finding "risky social environment was the strongest correlate of physical and emotional dating violence victimization and perpetration within a romantic relationship." Teens exposed to violence in their community or family environments are more likely to become involved in dating violence, because they often mirror the behavior they see. Home environments that consistently use violence or aggression to resolve problems or to establish power or control set a standard for the children to follow in those environments.

    Teens without healthy role models to establish positive norms about dating relationship behavior are ill equipped to handle the complex emotions that stem from these new relationships.  Teens who learn to identify unhealthy relationship qualities are much less likely to perpetuate negative norms they might have learned in their communities or homes.

    Development of social competency at an early age to promote pro-social bonding equips teens to apply what they have learned about healthy relationship norms to their own relationships.  Positive peer influence  promotes healthy norms as well.  According to NIJ, "Programs that help develop healthy peer relationships should begin early in adolescence, when youth are first learning to establish more autonomous and meaningful peer relationships.  Youth can learn and practice with peers many of the positive qualities that are important in healthy romantic relationships."

    Often, teens simply don't know yet the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  As teens learn to differentiate positive and negative relationship qualities, they learn how to set appropriate boundaries.  SEL activities that simulate real-life scenarios offer teens opportunities to practice handling a spectrum of relationship possibilities.  Essential social and emotional skill development, such as learning to identify and manage emotions, as well as making responsible decisions, lays a strong foundation for lifelong healthy relationship management.  Simple education of the acceptable "do's" and the unacceptable "don'ts" can go a long way to promoting healthy relationships.

    Research may show that teen violence does in fact occur, but we can do our part to steer teens toward healthier relationships. By equipping teens with strong social-emotional skills sets, and the knowledge they need to observe appropriate boundaries and discern unhealthy from healthy relationship qualities, we prepare teens to make healthy choices as they navigate relationships from adolescence into adulthood.

  • Take Five

    Emotion management is one of the core components of social emotional learning skills taught in effective prevention education. Coupled with other social emotional skills, emotion management benefits children both socially and academically.

    Dr. Kenneth Barish, a child therapist and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, in the Huffington Post writes, "Children who are able to regulate their emotions pay more attention, work harder, and achieve more in school." And the 2013 Too Good evaluation study showed just that-prevention education that develops social and emotional skill sets, such as emotion management, not only decreases the risk of substance use but also facilitates stronger academic performance.

    Research and evidence show the benefits that result from emotion management, but how can we as adult role models cultivate emotion management in children? One way is by lending an empathetic ear. When children feel they are truly being heard, they feel less a sense of urgency and therefore are able to more thoughtfully express themselves. Dr. Barish states that children are less likely to "get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument and denial." Children are therefore more likely to take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, which prepares them to make thoughtful, rational choices.

    We can also heighten children's awareness of their own emotions by teaching them valuable self-assessment tools, such as learning to identify the physical signs of their emotions in addition to the thoughts and experiences associated with them. For example, children attentive to how their heart races, or to the feel of the muscles around the mouth when they are frowning, can use these physical signals as a cue to relax. When children learn to identify these signs in others, they are better able to interpret and ultimately anticipate the emotions of others. Acute social awareness provides the necessary elements to applying empathy. Socially aware children are also better able to positively influence the behaviors of those around them by deflecting conflict or intervening with a solution-based attitude.

    Self-aware children are empowered not only to respond to internal and external influences but to bring about positive change in potentially negative situations.  Children who learn to recognize and appreciate the emotions of others develop a greater capacity to build stronger, more supportive relationships.

    Emotion management ultimately leads to responsible decision making, effective communication, pro-social bonding, and academic success-an established formula that emboldens children to establish a bright future for themselves.

  • Please Pass the Gravy!

    As we greet the new year, we tuck away more memories of close family gatherings—memories of the table draped in heirloom lace and the lingering taste of great-grandmother's gingersnaps. During the holiday season, the dinner table is a symbol for tradition and family unity; it is a place of comfort and bonding.

    Moving forward, it would prove especially beneficial to let this tradition extend into a year-round routine. According to a study commissioned by CASA Columbia, teens that have frequent dinners with their families are less likely to engage in alcohol, tobacco, or other drug use. The study showed that teens who had weaker relationships with their parents were more than twice as likely to have used alcohol, twice as likely to use tobacco, and three to four times more likely to have used marijuana.

    Healthy bonding, support, and high expectations are protective factors for establishing positive norms to prevent substance use and abuse. Family, school, and community environments offer children a space to engage in healthy relationships, and bonding through meaningful participation provides opportunities for children to develop esteem, promoting a sense of self-worth in relation to others.

    From the dinner table to the classroom, positive adult role models set and reinforce healthy norms for children. When parents and teachers set a positive example, children will come to expect their parents' and teachers' attitudes and behaviors to be the norm; the opposing negative attitudes and behaviors of negative influences will be seen as an unhealthy exception to the norm.

    High expectations from respected adults, combined with a strong support system, reinforce in children a desire to live up to their best selves, giving them the confidence they need to aspire to reaching their goals and relate to others in a healthy way.

    It is sometimes difficult to resist being swept away by the fast-paced current of our contemporary culture. The holidays remind us to pause and engage more frequently in meaningful exchanges with children and teens who look to us for direction, for we play a significant role in their unfolding futures.

    From all of us at the Mendez Foundation, we wish you a safe and fruitful new year!

  • The Possible Dream

    Goal-setting is a cornerstone to effective prevention education. When children set goals for themselves, they make an investment in their future. The firmer their resolutions, the less likely they are to make decisions that would deter them from reaching those goals. They in turn develop a stronger moral compass, and they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance use and violence.

    Setting age appropriate goals for children, and encouraging them to set their own, will foster foundational expansion. However, it is crucial to recognize the stages of children’s cognitive development; children move from concrete to abstract thinking over the course of elementary school. In order for children to reach their goals, they must strive toward goals that are set within their stage of development. Furthermore, children who are able to discern short-term from long-term goals may set and reach their goals with greater confidence.

    While aiding children in setting and reaching goals, we must consider the most beneficial learning environment. In a recent Huffington Post article, Dr. Gail Gross, Family and Child Development Expert, writes, “As we guide children towards their fullest potential, we teach them through bonding, observation, social learning and role modeling, how to delay gratification and reach goals and resolutions.” Children thrive in a learning environment that encourages bonding and social learning. They establish a sense of individuality in relation to others, which is necessary for both autonomy and healthy relationship building. Social learning activities may include interactive games, media, and role-plays. These activities simulate real life social constructs so children may tangibly apply what they have learned to their own lives.

    But how does a social environment circle back to goal-setting? Once a community is established, children are able to feel both a sense of individuality and a sense of belonging to a group. These feelings in combination relieve stress in children, which in turn frees them up to set reachable goals for themselves. And the more capable children are of setting reachable goals, the more likely they are to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. Children will develop healthy decision making skills that will secure for them a safe and flourishing future.

  • The New Face of Heroin

    Think of Vermont, and you most likely conjure images of mountains ablaze with russet foliage and roads meandering through quaint covered bridges. You might not suspect this pastoral state has an escalating heroin epidemic. But early this year, Rolling Stone highlighted a story of a Vermont teen whose OxyContin abuse led to heroin addiction.

    Teens and young adults are increasingly exposed to heroin in places few of us would expect. In less than a decade, the demographic of heroin users has dramatically shifted. What once was considered an inner-city street drug can now be found in the heart of suburban households. Recently, a front page article in The New York Times featured a story about a Staten Island mom who over a four month period spiraled into a life of using and dealing heroin that ended in her arrest. The home she and her family once shared quickly became a den for drug users and dealers.

    Why this surge in heroin use and the change in demographic?  A recently published article in The Economist identifies a direct correlation between prescription medication abuse and heroin use. The causal link between these two drugs is not obvious on its face but easy to see after examining how these drugs are related. The rise in prescribed pain medications has led to an increase in opioid addictions. Effective measures to control access to prescription pain medications have driven addicted users to the next affordable source for their high. Street heroin is as plentiful and cheap as it ever was. This revelation reminds us to consider efforts to prevent substance use in the first place.

    People young and old carry misperceptions of the strength of prescription medications and the negative effects of their abuse.  The implied safety of a doctor’s prescription suggest pills and other medications are a safer risk than street drugs like heroin or methamphetamine.  What may begin as legitimate treatment for illness or injury may turn into addiction as a result of decisions made without considering consequences.

    But what preventive measures can we take to navigate children and teens away from the abuse of prescription medications?  The root problem lies much deeper than simply targeting individual drugs. Research has shown that children at high risk of substance abuse benefit from prevention education strategies that build social and emotional skills.

    Responsible decision-making skills give children the ability to consider the consequences of the choices they face.  Effective communication skills together with practical and effective refusal strategies embolden children and teens to refuse negative pressure from their peers.  Adding an awareness of the harm of abusing substances effectively builds for children and teens a solid foundation to meet the challenges of life and make healthy choices along the way.

  • Upcoming Webinars on School Climate and Violence Prevention

    Violence prevention and school climate are the focus of two upcoming webinars.

    On February 18, 2014, from 1 to 2 p.m. ET, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will host the Public Health Grand Rounds Webcast “Preventing Youth Violence.” Presenters will examine youth violence as a public health issue and highlight evidence-based approaches and partnerships to address it. OJJDP Administrator Robert L. Listenbee will discuss the importance of promoting violence prevention in communities, share strategies and resources to achieve impact, and provide examples of how communities can augment their violence-prevention efforts. More information is available the CDC website.

    On February 27, 2014 from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 ET,  the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice will host the next Supportive School Discipline Webinar Series event. This webinar will provide an in-depth review of the Guiding Principle #1, Climate and Prevention of the U.S. Department of Education issued Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. This engaging and interactive webinar will also provide concrete examples of how it can be implemented. More information is available at the Safe Supportive Learning website.


  • Parents Key to Substance Abuse Prevention

    - by Kate Elkins -

    For some parents, the new marijuana legalization laws may be nerve-wracking, but there are many proven ways that parents can help prevent their sons and/or daughters from using marijuana or other drugs. Whether it’s using chew tobacco, underage drinking or marijuana usage, the principles are the same. Many parents might feel that their teens are not listening to them or that what they say has no effect. This couldn't be further from the truth.

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, national surveys of teens ages 12 to 17 show that teens who believe their parents would strongly disapprove of their substance use were less likely to use substances than others. SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde reports that “Surveys of teens repeatedly show that parents can make an enormous difference in influencing their children’s perceptions of tobacco, alcohol or illicit drug use.”

    Talking about the effects of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs with youth and setting clear expectations against use can be critical in preventing teen usage. When it comes to the facts about marijuana’s effect on health and the consequences of using it, there are often many opinions and sides to the story. Some really good websites are available to help parents navigate talking points, and a great place to start is the National Institute on Drug Abuse ( It’s also important to remember that a big consequence for students is suspension from athletics and clubs in which they participate in, if caught using or possessing marijuana or other drugs (check with your school district’s athletic and activities codes and policies).

    On top of talking to young people about substance use and abuse, Grand Futures Prevention Coalition recommends modeling responsible behavior surrounding substance use, enrolling youths in after-school and weekend activities and removing access to alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and prescription medications in the home. Grand Futures believes that this holds true for all community members — parents, guardians, mentors, coaches, neighbors, grandparents, teachers, aunts and uncles and older siblings — its everyone’s job to ensure that young people grow up healthy and safe.

    Talk to the parents of your children’s friends and set expectations together. Then you can reinforce them with each other’s teens. Community standards that are consistent help set the bar higher for every child and household.

    Grand Futures will be publishing additional prevention tips for parents and community members as part of the Thoughtful Parenting column in the Steamboat Today in the upcoming months. Further, Grand Futures has a number of informational brochures and newsletters that parents can access by visiting our website at

    Kate Elkins on behalf of Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, Steamboat Springs Colorado. Published in Steamboat Today

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