Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Tough Reality of Urban School Psychology and Making it Better

I received a question from a graduate student at CSULA on my Facebook page, which I wanted to share here as well:
 I am preparing an inservice for "Best practices in Urban School Psychology." I wanted to know what types of skills or skill set are most useful for an urban school psychologist? Also what are the most commonly faced issues?
After I responded briefly on Facebook, I got to thinking more and more, and realized what a special population I work with. While I am by no means the expert in urban school psychology, I can share some of the issues that I frequently face and what skills are helpful in my day-to-day work. 

Foster care and broken families go hand-in-hand. Many of the children I work with are not being raised by a typical family unit (i.e. mom and dad), but may be with auntie, uncle, grandma & grandpa, older sister, cousin, or another adoptive parent. There are a variety of reasons for this including, but not limited to, divorce, death of a parent, incarceration of a parent or family member, abandonment by a parent or family member, forced removal from the typical home, and the child running away.

Stemming from living in foster care or coming from a broken family, many students face issues relating to grief and loss. When a parent or family member leaves, passes away, is incarcerated, etc, it is an extremely traumatic experience for any child to deal with. Children feel all sorts of emotions that are not only difficult for them to understand, but require a great deal of support to attempt to overcome. Many kiddos always carry some kind of remnant that will never truly go away.

Atypical family units and grief can be the result of violence and abuse. There's no question that urban environments can breed a lot of bad situations and circumstances that can lead to violence and gang culture to survive. Unfortunately, innocent children are the ones metaphorically caught in the cross-hairs and affected by it, when they have the fewest coping skills. Abuse doesn't happen only in the city, but everywhere, and whether they witness it or are the one being abused, children suffer. In my building, we have had children lose siblings to gang violence, parents to domestic abuse, their homes to house fires, and their innocence to sexual abuse. These are seriously tough issues.

Poverty and homelessness are also big issues faced by the urban population. Some of my students live in "bad" neighborhoods, where they may hear gunshots next door, have to sleep on the floor with three little siblings because there is no bed, have to run the gas stove for heat, and have to count down the minutes til breakfast at school Monday morning, because they don't have food in the house. Some don't have a home at all, because they stay wherever they can--at the shelter, with auntie, in a hotel, with a friend, who knows. Going along with these issues is a lack of enrichment. When given the choice between having books in the house or dinner on the table, I know where my money would be going. Urban students often lack the exposure to things that more affluent students have, such as books, field trips, travel, art, theatre, etc. When they start school, they lack experience, which puts them even farther behind the 8-ball.

So what the heck can you do to help? First, the most important thing to realize is that you are one person, and you cannot change the environment, culture, lifestyle, or city in which your students live. Honestly, it's depressing and defeating, but it's the unfortunate reality. Although you cannot "save" them, you CAN do so much to make their lives better.

The biggest and most important skill I use with my kiddos is simply listening. There is so much going on in the lives of urban students that people don't realize, or don't care to realize. Being an attentive adult who listens to the stories, challenges, and triumphs of these students can sometimes be the smallest thing to you, but the biggest thing to them. Take an interest in them for who they are. Ask questions. Show them empathy. Make them feel validated and worthy. You may be the only person who asks them how their day was, what they had for dinner last night, what they think about an issue, what they did on Saturday, or what their dreams and aspirations are. Imagine what that means to them. Support them however you can, whether it's giving them a snack when they're hungry, putting a book in their hands, giving a hug, high-five, or a kind word, or providing enrichment opportunities like a field trip, new experience, and new way of thinking about things. They may never get these things otherwise. Teach them about things they never would have known before, or skills they need to survive. Coping skills that we use to get over minor upsets, like calm breathing and counting backwards, might be the difference in them getting out of a very bad situation safely. Social skills that help affluent children make friends might help urban kiddos fall in with the "right" group of kids and stay out of a gang.

Bottom line: I love my job.

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  1. This made me cry (yes, I'm a sap). I also thought your advice in the last paragraph was spot on. I'm sure you make a difference in the lives of many children; remember, a huge protective factor for these kids is having at least one close relationship with a stable adult. Keep fighting the good fight!

    P.S. Had issue logging in, but this is Monica :)

  2. No woman no cry! You hit the nail on the head, Monica--having an adult that kiddos can rely on, talk to, draw support from, and confide in can make a world of difference.

  3. Great post-I totally agree! It is so important we remember we are just one person doing the best we can with the skills and resources we have!


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