As I watched my daughter’s dance class, it became obvious that her instructor’s role involved teaching much more than dance steps. It involved what’s called the “hidden curriculum.”
The little girls were forming a dance train. One girl whined and said she wanted to be first but didn’t know how to express herself calmly. It was an opportunity for a life lesson as the instructor pointed out that the girls would take turns being the leader. The frustrated girl relented when she realized she would get a turn.
Every week across the nation, these life lessons are conveyed not only by parents and teachers but also by professionals and volunteers who work with youth.
The best life-lesson teachers realize their roles go far beyond teaching soccer skills, how to read or how to build a campfire. The best ones realize their work involves teaching kids how to get along with other people – how to share, to be courteous, to help others and even to lead.
They also realize something else, something that can be far more challenging for them to address: They have an obligation to act when they suspect a child is troubled.
Children don’t always know how to ask for help. It’s up to adults to spot problems and report them, especially if the problems are interfering with the child’s school or social life. Some children might be easily frustrated or have problems relating to peers. Their grades might be poor, despite hard work. Or they could be isolated from their peers.
These could be signs of deeper problems and may indicate the need for a mental health assessment and possibly treatment.
When a problem presents itself, it is best to contact the child’s parents or caregivers. They might not be aware of the problem. A child’s behavior is not always the same in the community as it is at home. Even if the parent is aware that a child is struggling, the parent might not know what to do. It’s important for a family not to feel alone in handling the child’s problems.
Of course, if child abuse or neglect is suspected, it must be reported immediately to law enforcement or child protective services. These professionals are trained to identify dangerous situations and act to protect the welfare of children.
For many people, it could be easier to look the other way when something seems wrong. But we live in an interconnected society. We are responsible for each other. The teen whose antisocial behavior is left unaddressed today could become a perpetrator tomorrow. Likewise, the teen exhibiting signs that something is wrong could be an abuse victim. If the abuser isn’t stopped immediately, the abuser could go on to prey on other kids.
Admittedly, there are risks and concerns for youth service workers trying to do the right thing. A parent might react in a hostile way to a coach pointing out a child’s problem. The best way to avoid that reaction is to treat caregivers with respect.
Spotting problems and alerting the proper people doesn’t take extensive training. You can rely on your common sense and life experience to know how to handle those situations. In doing so, you can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
A comprehensive list of warning signs can be found at http://findyouthinfo.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/warning-signs.
Debbie Gingrich, a licensed social worker, is director of behavioral health at The Children’s Home of Cincinnati, which provides behavioral health treatment and education services to vulnerable children.