Program aids schoolchildren with conflicts

National initiative pairs adults, youth to solve problems

`A team working together'

Pupils find solutions to familiar situations in after-school skits

January 11, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Children are learning to resolve conflict by acting out situations similar to those they encounter daily in their homes, classrooms and neighborhoods at a new after-school program for middle-schoolers in Carroll County.

Pupils at West Middle and New Windsor Middle schools are the first in the county to participate in Healthy Communities Healthy Youth. The national initiative, founded by the Search Institute of the Lutheran Brotherhood, links community leaders with children to teach them to be more competent, caring and responsible people.

"We need to listen to youth, hear them and have their voice count," said Michele Barattucci, program coordinator. "This program gets us involved on a personal level with youth."

As part of the program, pupils often improvise resolution to a problem. One recent skit at West Middle School showed the role peers can play in the success of classmates. The scene, completely ad-libbed, centered on an awkward young girl whose parents insisted she play basketball. She had trouble dribbling the ball, frequently tripped and was teased.

But the scene changes when another girl steps in and plays coach. She teaches her new friend the intricacies of the game and encourages her.

"You can do it," the young coach says confidently and repeatedly until the reluctant player finally makes a basket. Instead of teasing, the team cheers.

The eight youths in the program at West Middle School said the skit showed the value of "high expectations" and "positive peer influence" and encouragement - words that are not the usual jargon of the preteen set.

The vocabulary includes words such as utopia and concepts such as self-help and role model.

One of the actors, Shaina Hill, 13, said the role-playing has shown her how to help others.

"The girl in the scene could finally do something, when somebody helped her," Shaina said. "Of course, it also helps if you don't get teased."

Alec Sandler, 14, said the program really helps "kids who think they can't do things. This is a good learning experience that is showing us we all have something to teach someone else. If a kid doesn't know how to do something, you should teach him, not make fun of him."

The program has identified 40 developmental assets that are building blocks for children. The list includes family support, character traits such as honesty and responsibility, self-esteem, boundaries and commitment to learning.

Darren Sheppard, 13, an eighth-grader at West Middle, said he would like to see those assets at work in classrooms.

`A perfect world'

"If we all used all 40, it would be utopia, a perfect world where everyone looked out for each other," Darren said. "Right now, we have these cliques of who is cool. I don't see this kind of support around school."

Barattucci would like to see her acting troupe make a film of the spontaneous skits or re-enact them for other youth groups. The program begins in middle school in the hopes that children will carry its lessons throughout high school.

"These kids are making such wise statements and learning to make wise decisions by consensus," Barattucci said. "We want to train them to be that healthy community as they grow."

Eventually, Barattucci envisions children at town council meetings, school board sessions and business gatherings "as full-fledged members giving their opinions," she said. "That is what will build partnerships and a healthy community. We are shifting from planning for children to planning with them."

For now, the children meet monthly with a panel of adults who are helping them to promote their innate talents.

`Team working together'

"Adults do the heavy work, that they are used to," Barattucci said. "But, we truly are a team working together. Everyone has an equal voice whether they are in the sixth grade or in county government."

When she did an anonymous survey of the group, "many said they could not tell the children's responses from the adults'," she said.

Candy Frank, 12, said she has put the concepts to work with her family and in her neighborhood.

"This program has given me more expectations of myself," she said.

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