On Having Rocks in Your Head

My dad was affectionately known for a collection of sayings he had in response to all the situations my four siblings and I got into growing up. At my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party my brother Steve made my dad cry when he (Steve) stood and read the list of all of the sayings we could collectively remember, and shared how much they meant to all of us. It was a remarkably long list.

I remember one in particular: “You’ve got to have rocks in your head!,” which was usually uttered whenever one of us made a less than stellar life choice. If I knew what I know now, I would have come back with: “No, dad, actually, I don’t have rocks in my head, it is just that the development of my prefrontal cortex has not yet caught up with my limbic system.”

This summer, the local news rocked with the story of a teen-age girl who impulsively pushed her friend off a high bridge into a river 50 feet below. Even though she was severely injured, the pushed girl survived, and the rest of us shook our heads in disbelief, repeatedly watching the video of the impulsive push. While not condoning the pushing girl’s actions in any way, it is important to note that the girl who was pushed was on the outside of the bridge railing apparently contemplating jumping, when her friend’s push made the decision for her. Public outrage was understandably swift, and the girl who pushed ultimately pleaded guilty to a reckless endangerment charge. And while I, too, wince when I remember what happened on that bridge, I still don’t believe it was because either girl had rocks in her head. I do think, however, there was some powerful misalignment between impulse and rational decision making going on.

The past 20 or so years of research has unveiled a great deal about adolescent brain development, illuminating for us the wonderful complexities of the adolescent brain, and underscoring the opportunities those of us who work with youth have to shape healthy brain development by providing programs and settings that support positive risk taking. An important aspect of this work is understanding the difference between impulsive actions – which are based on an insensitivity to risk, and impulsive choices – which focus on choosing immediate small gains, over long-term better choices. Pushing someone off a bridge is an impulsive action. Choosing to jump off the bridge, for the short term reward of the thrill of doing so despite the possible negative outcomes, is an impulsive choice.

Research has revealed that impulsive actions in adolescence are often correlated to problems with self-regulation in childhood, highlighting again why helping children and youth develop important self-regulatory skill is an important part of the work we do to help youth thrive. Impulsive choices, in contrast, decline from childhood to adulthood as the development of the limbic (impulsive) and prefrontal (rational) regions of the brain come into better balance. As we get older, our thrill seeking choices are tempered more and more with a rational exploration of the potential (negative) consequences.

Taking risks is a natural part of being an adolescent, and developmentally, it makes sense. Adolescence is all about trying new things, taking new risks, exploring new opportunities and possibilities, and the developing adolescent brain allows this exploration to happen more easily. As youth development professionals we play an important role in scaffolding opportunities for positive risk taking during the period where the systems of a young person’s brain are not quite in alignment.

We can start by teaching youth about the difference between impulsive actions and impulsive choices. We can challenge a young person to try a new challenge, and keep a safety net below them at the same time- creating a safe space for positive risk taking. We can also focus on building skills for self-regulation to protect against impulsive actions, taking the time to talk through the possible outcomes of an impulsive choice. And we can teach adolescents about their own developing brain functions and how such functions affect the choices they make

So, I am curious, how have you helped a young person navigate the period of life when it looks like they have rocks in their head?

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

On the Promise of Adolescence

For most of the summer, except when I was traveling, I had a regular schedule to my days. I usually started with an early morning walk to Starbucks with my little dog Romey (whom, while I got my coffee enjoyed a cookie from his friend Steve who is always there before 6am, leaving a cookie by the pole where I tie Romey if we arrive too late). Then we headed home to do some reading before hitting the computer to continue the work on advancing the 4-H Thriving Model.

Most days I looked up from my computer near 10 or 11 am, and needing a break, Romey and I headed back to Starbucks (this time across the field rather than the long way around) for a second cup of coffee to sit and think through the morning’s work and make a plan as to where we needed to head next. But as summer turned into fall, it was later and later before I headed back for that second cup of coffee – everything in the morning was taking more time and thought to accomplish before I felt I could take a break.

And so it was that I found myself as September rolled around, arriving for my second cup of coffee closer to 3pm than 11am. Never mind, though. I enjoyed the break whenever it came, and one particular day tucked a new book in my backpack as I headed across the field – a new consensus study report from the National Academies that I had eagerly been awaiting entitled The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth.

At Starbucks I got my late coffee, and tucked into a quiet corner to dive into my new book. And then…before I finished the first page, a ka-zillion girls came in, enjoying their stop for a treat on the way home from the middle school up the road. My quiet reading corner was assaulted with giggles, texts, and frappacinos, shattering my usual quiet reading time. School had started.

Here I was wanting to read about the promise of adolescence while at the same time being quite annoyed by the abundance of adolescents around me! The irony of my irritation was not lost on me. When I realized the reality of the situation, I invited some of the girls to share my table, which they did with sweet smiles, and healthy chatter of school, activities, friends, and families. It was a lesson in remembering what our work is all about!

But about the book… it is written by the Committee on the Neurobiological and Socio-Behavioral Science of Adolescent Development and its Applications, with the assignment to “synthesize these exciting advances in the science of adolescent development and draw out their implications for the social systems charged with helping all adolescents flourish.” Of note is the statement that this knowledge “has not yet penetrated the everyday understanding of informed citizens and policy makers, including many who serve young people.”

Indeed it is a rich and complex time of scientific discovery in child and adolescent developmental science; science that must inform our everyday practice as we work together to help youth thrive. As the youth development program of the Extension Service, 4-H practitioners have an obligation to bring the emerging science in child and adolescent development from the university to the people with whom we work. And with so much unfolding about youth development, this obligation is perhaps more important than ever.

So look forward to more on the topic of the promise of adolescence as we head into the 4-H year. I’ll share what I am learning with the hope that you as practitioners can turn that learning into practice. As we do, I invite your feedback (and blog posts!) on how you are using the information to help youth thrive.

Until then. Thriving on,

Mary Arnold

On Thriving in Maine

Where Knowledge is Teachable

This week I headed to New England on my helping youth thrive tour, and on Tuesday we followed Route 1 up the Maine coast from Portland to Orono, home of the university of Maine. As promised when we locked in the dates for this visit, the autumn splendor of the northeast was in full swing (I heard last night this this week is the peak of color for many locations). Seeing the New England fall trees is something I have always wanted to do, so a slow drive on a beautiful day was definitely a treat. Let’s face it, Oregon is a state full of natural beauty, but it simply can’t match the brilliant reds against the deep green pine among bursts of yellow and orange that is abundant in Maine right now. It was a breathtaking drive at every turn of the road.

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of introducing the 4-H Thriving Model to the 4-H staff at the UM campus in Orono. As I have conducted these trainings I have learned over and over again the importance of grounding this academic work in the lived experiences and practices of real youth practitioners – the people on the ground, working directly with young people and witnessing the powerful effects that 4-H can have on them. To do this I start the day by asking them to reflect on four questions in small(ish) groups:

  1. What draws youth to 4-H
  2. What benefits do youth gain from being in 4-H
  3. What role do 4-H volunteers play?
  4. What makes 4-H unique from other youth-serving organizations?

After some discussion each group then prepares a poster that captures their discussion and answers to the questions.

At the end of the day, we return to the posters and I ask the groups to “code” their posters with little shiny stars, placing a different colored star on their poster where there poster illustrated each of the components of the 4-H Thriving Model. The result is a colorful poster covered in shiny stars – a perfect graphic portrayal of how they are already implementing the 4-H Thriving Model in the programming they are doing.

The question I ask the groups to reflect on is whether they see every element of the 4-H Thriving Model reflected on their posters. The answer is always “yes.” It is so rewarding for me to help these dedicated educators see the power of their own work. And also so see a palatable relief that the 4-H Thriving Model is understandable and not foreign to their everyday reality at all.

From here, the educators often feel empowered by the model, and excited to think about how they can use the model to improve what they already do – to make their educational efforts with youth even more effective.

By far, though, my favorite part is the end of the day when I ask the educators to reflect on the value of what we learned during the day. Everytime I so I learn something new. At the end of our time together in Maine one educator stated simply: “I now have clear knowledge of what I have to do to be an effective youth educator, and knowledge is teachable.” Meaning among other things, that gaining an understanding of the 4-H Thriving Model has given her the tools she needs to teach others, including her 4-H volunteers, how to do effective, research-based 4-H programs with youth.

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold

On Advancing the 4-H Thriving Model

Welcome to October everyone, and the start of a brand new 4-H (and academic) year. The unusual cold of the last few days in Oregon has definitely set the stage for the coming autumn, and with it all the excitement of a new year of learning as we work together to help youth thrive!

To catch you all up a bit, I took the summer away from the blog in order to re-energize and refocus after what turned out to be an unexpected and rather unwelcome rough spring. When spring turned into summer I jumped into my nine month sabbatical that is intended to accomplish a singular goal of advancing the 4-H Thriving Model across the national 4-H System. It is such exciting work, and I am so excited to get underway with the next steps of this project.

But this summer was an opportunity to take a deep dive into the current literature in youth development, as well as look more closely at one of the preeminent developmental scholars, Erik Erikson, upon whose work a great deal of our modern youth development theory and practice is based. It took a while to get through the dense but very informative biography entitled Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. I hope over the coming months to share the ways in which Erikson’s work influences our practice today.

I also completed a few manuscripts, including one on the first wave of research on the 4-H Thriving Model co-authored with lead analyst Dr. Ryan Gagnon, which will be published this month in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, entitled Illuminating the Process of Youth Development: The Mediating Effect of Thriving on Youth Development Program Outcomes. Another manuscript updating the 4-H Thriving Model and describing the next steps for advancing it is ready to send off for review. And another fun paper written with my colleague Jon Gandy was just published in the Journal of Extension describing a participatory evaluation project we did with some teens to get their take on the 4-H Thriving Model, entitled Youth Participatory Evaluation: Matching 4-H Youth Experience to Program Theory.

But by far, the bulk of my time was spent preparing to launch a task force chartered by the National 4-H Program Leaders Working Group (PLWG) to advance the 4-H Thriving Model across the national system. The interest in, and support of, the 4-H Thriving Model as the way we define positive youth development in 4-H has been wonderful, and at the same time full of challenges. Adopting the model with clarity and fidelity requires three things: (1) professional development for 4-H staff and volunteers; (2) further research on the model using a realistic evaluation approach: “What works for whom under what conditions;” and (3) organizational alignment across all entities of the 4-H program, focusing especially on helping the system understand that the 4-H Thriving Model is not a departure from other models we have used to describe 4-H.

The moment arrived last spring when it was clear I could no longer do this work alone. And the best news? I don’t have to because of the many talented and dedicated scholars and practitioners across the 4-H system who are willing to help guide the work.

Over the summer I put out a call for membership on this PLWG Advancing the 4-H Thriving Model task force and was delighted to receive applications from 55 people who want to participate. I am so excited to get underway with this work, and as we do, I will keep you informed on the blog.

So, welcome to this lovely season of fall. I hope you all get off to a successful start of the 4-H year. And to my colleagues here in Oregon, I look forward to working with all of you as we build forward from today together- with our singular goal of helping youth thrive.

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold