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Psychologist to speak on importance of family in handling student behavior
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Psychologist to speak on importance of family in handling student behavior

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BURLINGTON—Student behavior problems and achievement will be the focus of two, Tuesday evening presentations by Dr. Mervin Langley at the Aurora Wellness Center, 300 McCanna Parkway, in November and December. Langley, a licensed psychologist with extensive clinical experience in the mental health field, will address the topic of “Coping with School-Related Behavior Problems” on Nov. 17, and “Motivating Children and Teens to Achieve in School” on Dec. 1.

Both programs run from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public. They are presented by Clinical Psychology Associates, NAMI Racine County and the Burlington Area School District.

Langley has been awarded grants and conducted research, both nationally and internationally, on psychological and motivational strategies. He received his PhD in psychotherapy in South Africa, became a United States citizen and started working with survivors of traumatic brain injury, conducting research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in collaboration with Northwestern University.

In his local practice with Clinical Psychology Associates, Langley now works with couples, families, children and teenagers. He is married with six children, the youngest of which is a freshman at Burlington High School. Ahead of his presentations, Langley answered questions about how parents can help children who are struggling with behavior problems and staying motivated in school.

What are some of the most common issues you see with children, particularly in relation to school?

The most common issues I see include anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other stress-related concerns. These problems interfere with the child’s ability to learn as well as to socialize in the school setting. Fortunately many of these problems respond very well to brief therapy. For example, one of the hallmark signs of depression in a child or teenager is irritability rather than sadness, as seen with adults who have depression. This irritability can sometimes be mistaken for rudeness or uncooperative behavior. Sometimes family stresses, such as family conflict, poverty, or financial problems can interfere with a child’s ability to learn and may contribute to acting out behaviors.

What tends to cause students to misbehave in school?

Destructive behaviors are often learned through observing the behaviors and receiving attention for performing them. For example, a child may observe conflict in his family or at school and imitate that behavior. If he or she receives attention from parents and teachers for that behavior, even negative attention, the behaviors will increase. The child may learn to control adult behavior through negative behaviors. For example, by acting out the child may force parents who are fighting to work together.

Sometimes children have a specific disorder that impact their behavior. Children with anxiety may have problems with school avoidance. Children with ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder) may have difficulty with impulse control and compliance. Children with depression may be irritable.

What are some strategies parents can use to address behavior problems in school?

Children are more likely to succeed in school if the child and his or her family are involved in the school setting; for example, parents should make every effort to attend parent-teacher conferences. Children benefit enormously through involvement in extra-curricular activities that build their confidence and self-esteem. I encourage parents to use positive discipline that avoids the use of punishment and emphasizes praise and reinforcement of positive behaviors. Spending 20 minutes a day playing with or conversing with your child will help to solidify a strong relationship. If the child may have a specific disorder, learn as much as you can and seek the assistance of your family doctor, teacher, and a local therapist.

What are some of the most common reasons why students lose interest in school?

Kids lose interest in school when they believe they can’t succeed. They develop “learned helplessness” which means they no longer believe that they can change their situation. Perhaps they have fallen behind and don’t know how to catch up. I’m always thrilled to see the improvement in confidence when a child with ADHD receives treatment and starts to realize that he can achieve! Sometimes the stress caused by family conflict, financial problems, and poverty can so preoccupy a child that he or she can’t properly focus at school. In older kids the ability to find meaning has been eroded as our culture relies increasingly on quick rewards through video games and other electronic devices. I was enormously blessed to have worked for two years with a psychiatrist who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps in World War II. We spent many hours discussing the way that concentration camp survivors held onto a sense of meaning through faith, service to others, and personal sacrifice. When I see families that encourage community service in their children I am always pleased as these kids will know how to construct meaning in their lives.

How can parents help keep their students motivated and engaged in class?

The most important thing is to help kids integrate with their school. I attended a swimming banquet this evening with my 14-year-old daughter who is a swimmer. I was very moved by the way that the kids support each other. The coach knew each child by name and was well aware of each child’s unique quirks and strengths. These kids hold each other accountable and if one is not at school the others want to know why. They support and encourage each other. We have teachers who work until late in the evening because they care about the kids.

I addition we should be sure to affirm our kids daily. Focus on effort not grades and help our kids identify their own strengths. We should always start with the positive before talking about negative behaviors.

Our second seminar in December deals with ways that parents can motivate their children. These strategies emerged from my research at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern and involve teaching coping skills, listening strategies, and systematic motivational counseling (SMC). Parents can learn these strategies and apply them.

To register prior to the programs, contact Lori Radtke at Cooper School, 249 Conkey St., Burlington by calling 262-763-0180, ext. 2224, or email lradtke@basd.k12.wi.us.

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