Preventing Risky Behaviorby Donna Volpitta
The statistics are frightening:
*One-in-four girls aged 14-19 in the United States have at least one of the five most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), based on data analyzed by the CDC.
*one in three teen girls in the United States is estimated to get pregnant at least once before age 20
*In 2005, 15.5% of youths ages 12-17 indicated that they had been approached by someone selling drugs in the past month.
*During the past year, 9.2% of students nationwide had been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend.
And they continue...
Traditional education programs geared toward risky behavior (bullying, drinking, drugs, sexual promiscuity, overspending, overeating, etc) typically aim to teach the dangers and possible negative outcomes associated with such behaviors. However, it is extremely difficult to make a good decision based on the risk of a long-term negative outcome. We are not programmed to work that way.
In order for children to make good decisions, they need support. It is critical to begin building strong communication early. Parents can build that communication by focusing in on four critical areas that children need to understand when faced with a bad situation: Self-Efficacy, Situation, Strategies, and Support.
According to Albert Bandura, father of the Social Learning Theory, self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (1995, p. 2). In other words, it is a person’s belief in his or her own abilities. When faced with a moral dilemma, our self-efficacy determines how we approach that situation. If we have strong self-efficacy, we are likely to view challenges positively, recover quickly from setbacks, and focus on out positive characteristics and abilities. If we have a weak self-efficacy, we are likely to view challenges as roadblocks, perseverate on our failings, and quickly lose confidence in our abilities. When faced with a moral dilemma, someone with strong self-efficacy is more likely to make a choice that will benefit them in the long run. In order to strengthen self-efficacy, a person needs to have a clear understanding of themselves (self-confidence) and have clearly defined goals.
When I was in college, one of the students at school, Chris Waddell, had a ski accident that left him paralyzed. A lifelong athlete, he was faced with the knowledge that he would not be able to walk again. However, instead of focusing in on walking, he asked when he could ski. He is now the most decorated male paralympic athlete in the world. Retired now, he is taking his story on the road with an educational program called “Nametags” (www.one-revolution.com) Nametags is about the labels that we have and the ideas associated with those labels.
The point of Chris’ story lies in the idea of “Nametags.” Nametags are characteristics; we all have them. However, in order to form strong self-efficacy, we need to accept our real nametags. When Chris had his accident, he gained the nametag, “paraplegic.” If he did not accept that nametag, it would have hurt his self-efficacy because, in fact, that was now a part of him. However, he defined paraplegic for himself. Most people define paraplegic as “disabled” or “crippled,” but Chris defined it in terms of the very specific things that he could not do. It is the difference between the physical reality and the emotional baggage associated with the nametag.
In addition to understanding who we are, self-efficacy is understanding where we are going: setting our goals. Having very specific goals about who we are, what we want to be, and what we want to achieve is a very good way to keep us from getting side-tracked. It is easier to make decisions that will be beneficial to us in the long run if we are clear about how they will benefit us.
It is difficult to understate the importance of strong self-efficacy in making good decisions.
When I was in college, I had an assignment in my sociology class to “do something that is against social norms, but not against the law.” It could be anything, it just needed to be uncomfortable. And it was. It was one of the most memorable and stressful assignments that I had in school. By nature, humans are not creatures that go against the norm. It does not come naturally to us to stand up for what is right if it means going against everybody else. We like to fit in and conform.
The most important influence on the situation at large is the overall culture within the particular community. By that, I mean that if we are addressing school behavior, we look at the school community, and if we are addressing home behavior, we are addressing the home community, etc. Students need to understand that if a community is not psychologically safe, they will be faced with more moral dilemmas. In other words, if risky, negative behaviors are accepted, people will join in--sort of eat or be eaten.
The second thing to realize about the situation is that most people are uncomfortable doing behaviors that they feel are not morally right, even if they do them anyway. This knowledge can be empowering to students faced with moral dilemmas because they can understand that they are not alone.
Finally, it is important for students to realize that they have power over what they do. There is a fine line between telling students that they need to do what they are told and giving them the strategies to stick up for themselves in situations when they should not do what they are told. We want to raise children that know when they should listen to authority and know when they should question it.
We are social creatures. Adults often do not have the strength to stand up against the crowd; students are even less likely to. The most common moral dilemma that I see with adults is the drunk driving decision. Many of us have been in a situation in which we know someone has probably had too much to drink, but it is very difficult to stand your ground and not allow that person to drive. If most adults are unable to do that, how do we expect our children to stand up for themselves?
Until our early twenties, our brains primarily function through the lymbic system, which is predominantly based on emotion. The most important thing in our lives at this point is our social relationships. This is one reason that small schools have often been found to be more successful: they foster stronger relationships between students and faculty. This is also the reason that having a good teacher can make or break a students’ year.
In elementary school, a child’s primary relationships are within his or her family. However, by middle school the primary relationship often changes to peers. At this stage of development, the part of the brain that is is associated with logic thought and the ability to understand consequences has not yet been developed. Therefore, this is a time period when youth are most at-risk.
Because youngsters are often trying to establish themselves as separate from their parents at this stage, they need strategies to make good decisions on their own. However, this is also the time period when it is most important to maintain a supportive relationship with effective communication. Just as they are pulling away, they need the most support!
Students need to understand that their parents are there to support them, but parents are also there to set limits and keep them safe. It is critical to establish very specific roles. Often parents feel the need to be “friends” with their pre-teen and teen children in order to have a good relationship--that is far from the truth. Children feel safer when they know that they are being protected, and that protection comes from having predictable, safe limits.
Kids do not have the strategies that they need in order to make good decisions. They just have no idea what to say. They can have all the knowledge in the world about the dangers of what they are about to do, but if they do not know how to avoid it, they will do it anyway. It is just who we are.
The first type of strategies that students need to learn are avoidance strategies: the activities that they can be doing and the peers that they can choose that will help them avoid moral dilemmas in the first place. I know a woman who has a daughter who has a good head on her shoulders. She knows which of her classmates will be good for her and which will not. Her mother knows this and trusts her judgement. They have an agreement: if the daughter asks her mother to go to a friend’s house (with the friend standing there), the mom will say, “do you really want to go?” If the daughter says, “Definitely!”, the mom will find an excuse not to let her go. It is their code: the daughter’s way of saying “this is not a good place for me to go, I need your help in getting me out of it.” The daughter comes out looking like she tried; the mom comes out looking like she is the bad guy, which is just fine.
Here is another example. My four-year old daughter went to someone’s house for a playdate and she wanted to leave. The mother, not wanting me to have to go out of my way to pick her up early, refused to call me. After that, I sat down with all of my kids for a a talk about play dates. I reminded them that mommy & daddy tell them never to lie. Then I told them that there are exceptions. I told them that if ever they were somewhere and they felt uncomfortable and someone would not call me, they were to say that they felt like they were going to throw up. In those cases, they have my explicit permission to lie. They got a kick out of it, and it made quite an impression. We even practiced it, and I hope they will be able to use it if needed. Whenever possible, we need to help give kids a way out.
However, even if students are effective it avoidance, eventually they will face moral dilemma and they need words to deal with them. Students need to be able to share with adults the dilemmas that they face and they need adults to provide them with language that will help them. They need to practice this language--both the words and the tone--so that they feel confident using it when faced with a dilemma.
For further information about Pathways to Empower, a program dedicated to helping students make good decisions, see www.PathwaystoEmpower.com.