Let’s Catch Kids Being Good, and Reinforce Their Positive Choices.

Marissa Jones

Mental health is equally as important as physical health, and each can affect the other in myriad ways. However, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health and the open discussion and treatment thereof. If you felt sick, or you thought your ankle might be sprained, or you seemed to be having an allergic reaction, you wouldn’t hesitate to go to the doctor and treat those issues impacting your physical health - why should mental health be any different?

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been observed in the U.S. since 1949. According to mentalhealth.gov, “[m]ental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”

I’m really proud that Change for Kids is a passionate advocate for social-emotional learning (SEL) and for ensuring a holistic educational experience for all children. It may be more difficult for someone with mental health concerns to actively show competency in areas such as empathy, self-regulation, emotion recognition and management, impulse control, and more. However, with a focus on SEL embedded in day-to-day interactions, the intricate link between SEL and mental health can be strengthened. Many of Change for Kids’ partner schools have implemented a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) program in their school communities, having recognized the need for increased interventions in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral support. PBIS programs can take many forms and can be used in many different settings, and the ultimate goal is to recognize and reinforce positive and pro-social behaviors.

One such program is the Psycho-Educational Model, or PEM. The hallmark of PEM is to catch kids being good,’ and reinforce positive behaviors at a higher rate than negative behaviors. Codified most prominently as the treatment model of Boys Town, a nationally recognized leader in the realm of child care and positive youth development, PEM is a self-help model. Hundreds of “PEM skills” are available to choose from, and most frequently, youth and their caretakers work together to decide which PEM skills are appropriate for them to focus on.

For example, if a kid displays positive behaviors related to the skill of “self-monitoring/self-reflection”, an adult directs the youth to give themselves points. The adult does not write the points down, but instead initials next to where the child wrote their PEM skill and applicable behavior. If kids don’t write their points down, they don’t count toward their daily level. This model encourages youth to take direct action and invest in themselves through their own positive choices; by modelling appropriate pro-social behaviors and statements, adults are able to show youth, who may be struggling, a path forward to regulate their emotions and behaviors. PEM is used throughout all settings - at home, in school, and while out and about in the community. This model works because of its consistency, and can be easily modified to suit all age levels, whether at school or at home.

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So how do PBIS, PEM skills, SEL, and mental health all converge? Put it this way: if a child’s mental health is suffering, they are likely to struggle with self-efficacy and self-regulation of emotions and behaviors - key indicators of high levels of competencies in SEL. Conversely, if a child is lacking in social-emotional skills, they may not have the wherewithal to gauge their own behavior patterns and emotional responses, leading to the inability to advocate for themselves to receive support for their mental health needs. That’s why providing additional SEL resources to our schools - and supporting their existing programs - is such a primary focus for CFK. You can learn more about the interconnectivity of SEL and mental health here.

During Mental Health Awareness Month, encourage your children (and other adults, too!) to be open and honest in their discussions around mental health, and to seek help if needed. The only way to eradicate the stigma around mental health is to start from the ground and work our way up, and have nonjudgmental conversations about mental health and mental illness. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please seek out help using any of the following resources: National Alliance on Mental Illness; 1-800-950-NAMI U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Mental Health America National Institute for Mental Health

Marissa JonesMarissa hails from Dedham, MA, home of the first taxpayer-funded public school in America! She received her B.A. from Hampshire College, and before CFK held a wide and varied career including making wedding cakes, working in juvenile detention, and sales. Marissa believes in fostering curiosity and a lifelong love of learning, and finds joy in helping kids figure out who they are and who they want to be. Marissa lives by the Mr. Rogers quote: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

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