“Traumatic events and toxic relationships during childhood can cast long shadows, often damaging mental health well into adulthood.” K. Lazar, The Boston Globe
“But a growing body of research suggests sustained, positive relationships with caring adults can help mitigate the harmful effects of childhood trauma. And specialists say pediatricians, social workers, and others who work with kids should take steps to monitor and encourage those healthy relationships — just as they’re careful to screen for abuse and neglect.
Otherwise, ‘we will miss attempts to help people recover or heal,’ said Dr. Robert Sege, a pediatrician and researcher at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center.
In the latest contribution to this research, a study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics, Sege and his coauthors found that supportive childhood relationships dramatically reduced the likelihood of developing depression and other mental health problems in adults.
The researchers studied several types of relationships, including bonds within families, between friends, and those in the community.
The survey included seven specific questions to measure how nurturing those sustained relationships were. Respondents were asked how often as a child they felt able to talk to their family about feelings, felt their family stood by them in difficult times, enjoyed participating in community traditions, felt a sense of belonging in high school, felt supported by friends, had at least two nonparent adults who took genuine interest in them, and felt safe and protected by an adult in their home…Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, said the growing recognition of the power of positive relationships to foster resilience will help busy physicians remember to ask about promising family, school, and community relationships. Armed with that information, a pediatrician can make more useful recommendations, she said. For instance, Boynton-Jarrett said some families facing particularly challenging episodes might be open to the suggestion that they reach out to relatives or friends for help.
‘Maybe mom has a significant mental health condition, but that child has two aunts who are very engaged, and a grandmother who is also very engaged,’ she said.
If a child seems to lack solid relationships with adult relatives, doctors might suggest parents or guardians look outside the family for support systems that can take root. Caregivers who help kids find these supportive relationships can often see children reap the benefits in real time.
In 2007, Trudy Wilcox was worried about her 8-year-old son, Evan, a lonely third-grader in Cambridge who struggled with speaking, reading, and writing and who was being bullied at school. Wilcox was overwhelmed, often traveling to Virginia to visit her frail parents while also trying to get Evan more assistance in school with his severe learning disability.
She knew she needed help, so she reached out to the mentorship program Big Brothers Big Sisters, which paired Evan with Nick Sisler, a gregarious, hockey-loving freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…The MIT hockey rink became Evan’s oasis. He would tag along with Sisler and fist-bump with all the players as they came off the ice. The players would invite him onto the ice after practice, cheering him on as he gingerly skated down and shot a goal — golden memories seared in his psyche a decade later…What started as something Sisler signed up for to fulfill a volunteer requirement at his college fraternity has blossomed into a 12-year-long friendship.
Sisler, now 30 and the founder of a Boston software company, has taught Evan how to shave and how to lubricate a bicycle chain. He’s also helped him learn how to make friends.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay also provided another trusted confidante — a ‘match support’ person who regularly checked in with Sisler, Evan, and his mother, offering guidance and feedback…
Today, Evan is majoring in math, and he hopes to become a researcher. His conversation skills are still a work in progress. He and Sisler recently grabbed a pizza together and then headed to one of the last Red Sox games of the season…Looking through the researchers’ lens, Evan was lucky: Though he was lonely and bullied at school, he had seven sustained, caring relationships — with his mother, Sisler, his match support person, and his four math teachers.”
NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.
Objective: Students will read and discuss the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Activities
Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer
Directions: Have students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them examine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.
II. While Reading Activities
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.
- Traumatic events can damage a child.
- Toxic relationships can harm a child’s mental health.
- Positive relationships can help mitigate the harmful effects of childhood trauma.
- A child’s bond with family members is especially important.
- Childhood experiences, such as neglect, or severe family dysfunction can cause trauma.
- The relationships should be nurturing for children.
- Doctors should pay closer attention to early childhood adversity and toxic stress.
- There is a growing recognition of the power of positive relationships.
- Some programs encourage collaboration between community groups and families to help children.
- Evan had a severe learning disability.
Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage
Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.
- Supportive childhood relationships reduced the likelihood of developing depression.
- The researchers studied several type of relationships.
- The survey included seven specific questions to measure how nurturing relationships were.
- Respondents were asked how often as a child they felt able to talk to their family about feelings.
- Armed with that information, a pediatrician can make more useful recommendation.
- Trudy Wilcox was worry about her 8-year-old son, Evan.
- Nick Sisler was a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- The MIT hockey rink became Evans oasis.
- Sisler, now 30, is the founder of a Boston software company.
Identify The Speakers
Directions: Place students in groups. Hand out the following quotes from speakers in the article. Members are to identify the speakers from the article. The first group to correctly identify all of the speakers wins.
- “…specialists say pediatricians, social workers, and others who work with kids should take steps to monitor and encourage those healthy relationships — just as they’re careful to screen for abuse and neglect. Otherwise, we will miss attempts to help people recover or heal.”
- “This thinking is catching on…These positive experiences may give kids a flashlight to shine into the future.”
- “The growing recognition of the power of positive relationships to foster resilience will help busy physicians remember to ask about promising family, school, and community relationships.”
- “I am Evan’s sole parent. We don’t have extended family in the area, and I saw Nick as a friend for Evan, someone who could provide fun, which wasn’t my strong suit,”
- “I felt less lonely…He’s a friend who would be beside me all the time.”
III. Post Reading Activities
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing
Directions: Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions/statements. Afterwards, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics mentioned.
- Have you ever helped a young child who had problems such as a family member or a friend?
- For those with children, do you feel that you provide a nurturing and supportive relationship with your child/children? How do you accomplish this?
- What were the seven specific questions included on the survey to measure how nurturing a child’s sustained relationships were?
- Who is Trudy Wilcox and why was she worried?
- What was the name of the program Wilcox contacted?
- Who is Nick Sisler?
- Are you familiar with The Big Brothers and Sisters organization? Have you or someone you know worked with them? If so, please describe the experience.
- Would you be interested in joining an organization that helped troubled children? Why or why not?
- After reading this article name at least one new idea that you’ve learned. Discuss what you’ve learned with your group members and share as a class.
Directions: In groups use the web to find out additional information about the mentorship program Big Brothers Big Sisters.
- How does one become a mentor?
- Are there limits on the age of the children accepted into the program?
- How long can a child remain within the program.
- If possible arrange a trip to visit a Big Brothers Big Sisters organization in your vicinity.