Groups help kids cope with volatile emotions

April 28, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

The boy was being suspended from school for something he said he hadn't done. He was mad. He was frustrated. He was ready to punch somebody.

Instead, he talked about the situation and his anger. He talked with other kids in his A.C.T. group -- that is Adolescents Coping Together -- and the adult moderator.

The moderator listened, and he went to bat for the boy. But not a punch was thrown.

"It turned out the child was right, and he never was suspended and he's still in school," says Elaine Fisher, executive director of Parents Anonymous of Maryland, which has put A.C.T. groups in 22 area public schools in the last three years.

Designed to help at-risk youngsters, aged 10 to 13, react non-violently to the stresses of adolescence, the A.C.T. program is only one of the ways Parents Anonymous is reaching into area schools to reduce violence.

The mostly volunteer organization dedicated to eliminating child abuse and neglect announced yesterday -- during a press conference at Dunbar Middle School in East Baltimore -- that it is taking its many-pronged attack on violence into city classrooms, and expanding the program as money allows.

"I can't tell you how many times I've had school personnel beg for help," says Ms. Fisher.

The backbone of the school-based program is A.C.T., which goes to kids where they are. Through discussions, role-playing and activities that encourage youngsters to talk about their emotions, the program tries to change behavior and make the kids feel better about themselves. The group works on self-esteem and learns problem-solving and coping skills as alternatives to violence.

Teachers refer students, whom they feel are at-risk, and the schools give the students one class period a week for the A.C.T. sessions led by Parents Anonymous volunteers.

"They are children whose parents are incarcerated, who have had violence in their immediate households; children who are caretakers -- of parents or other children," says Frances Jolley, the principal at Dunbar Middle School, where the A.C.T. program is in its second year.

"The children come from violent communities; they see a lot of violence," she says.

Although it's difficult to evaluate such programs, Ms. Jolley says if an A.C.T. meeting is canceled the students are upset. "You see the thirst," she adds. "We have a generation of youngsters who have been abused by a lack of love. Many just don't have the support of a good family."

In five schools, Parents Anonymous has started a "nurturing program" for the families of the children in A.C.T. groups. The youngsters and their families meet weekly at the schools to work out problems, to identify the needs of family members and to practice nurturing skills, says Ms. Fisher. "In a family, every member contributes to dysfunction; every member needs to contribute to the solution."

Next year A.C.T., which has served 375 children in three school years, will be in 30 schools and the nurturing program in 10. "We're still not meeting the need," she says.

For 18 years Parents Anonymous has run support groups for abusive parents. Some of these support groups are now associated with schools. The group also offers prenatal and parent training for teen mothers through its school-based program.

Parents Anonymous also operates a hot line for parents who want help avoiding or eliminating abusive behavior. More than 450 professionals -- doctors, counselors, police officers -- volunteer in these programs, says Ms. Fisher.

The school-based programs, which will cost about $100,000 this year, are supported by the United Way and a number of local foundations, businesses and charitable organizations.

Stress line

Parents Anonymous operates a 24-hour stress line, which provides crisis counseling for parents, as well as information and referral services. The number is (410) 243-7337. Collect calls are accepted.

For more information on the school-based programs and other ** services of Parents Anonymous, phone the state office at (410) 728-7021.

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