Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Short Note on Time In and Out of School

Don Siegel

When Sam and I were first crafting Project Coach in 2003-04, we came across Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools, a wonderful book about the achievement gap, and the role that school can play in closing it. In essence, Rothstein argued there, and continues to do so, that school alone cannot close the gap. In fact, he stated that scholarly efforts over four decades have confirmed that:

“…no analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students.”

While debates ensue about the importance of school in closing the achievement gap, typically portrayed as differences in academic achievement among Caucasian youth, and black and Hispanic youth, and among children emanating from different socio-economic strata, it seems that the larger context of their lives also must be considered.

How much time do kids actually spend in school? Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that, on average, children go to school 180 days in a year, and for 6.7 hours a day. This equals 1206 of the 8760 hours in a year, or 13.8% of a child’s time. Given that a youth between 12-18 needs between 8-9 hours of sleep each night, sleep occupies about 3285 hours in a year, or 37.5% of their time. If we compute the average time that children are in school while they are awake, we find that this represents 22% of their time. This leaves about 78% of a child’s waking hours outside of school! This 22% vs 78% split is not that far removed from Rothstein’s 33% vs 67% split of the in-school—out of school contributions to the achievement gap.


While there is a great deal of discussion of how schools should be structured, what curricula we should be teaching, and how we should be assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning, the fact remains that kids spend much more of their time out side of school than within school. Rothstein’s book contains a great deal of information about the sorts of disparities kids experience out of school, including, but not limited to such things as access to health services, parenting practices, connecting to cultural and social capital, and general living conditions. For more detailed analyses on these factors one should read Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, and more recently, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Clearly, if 78% of a kid’s waking hours provide differential exposure to things that significantly impact their health and well-being, how realistic is it to believe that schools alone, where they spend 22% of their time, can redress the inequities that are manifested in academic performance?  On the other hand, out of school programs, like Project Coach, can, and are attempting to redress inequities in the 78% of the time that kids are out of school. Surely, other factors come into play, but we can be doing more as a nation to enrich kids lives during their waking hours, which is largely outside of school.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning from Others: There Really are no Magic Bullets

Don Siegel

While most people familiar with Project Coach know that sports are an important part of what we do, few know that we like to think of ourselves first, and foremost, as a youth development program. In a nutshell, this means that our core goal is to use sports as a means to promote youth development, not as an end in themself.  The idea is that when leveraged properly kids can acquire a whole array of valuable life skills, including such things as emotional and attentional control, goal-setting and attainment skills, learning that extended practice is necessary to become good at something, developing an appreciation for and the capacity to be a valued team member, when and how to show initiative, and how to communicate effectively in various situations.

Project Coach also is a laboratory for undergraduates and graduate students interested in becoming teachers of urban youth or involved in public policy issues that impact the lives of underserved kids. As a laboratory, we also are very interested in learning from others, and actively seek out and study the strengths and weaknesses of other programs having a similar mission. One such organization that we have watched and admired over the years is the National Urban Squash and Educational Association (NUSEA).

NUSEA is the umbrella organization for programs that embrace the sport of squash as a core activity, and like Project Coach, use sport as the medium through which to engage and connect with youth in order to empower them as they acquire a whole array of powerful assets that can promote success in other contexts such as school.  Seventeen NUSEA programs operate in the United States, and four more recently became international affiliates. In aggregate, NUSEA Programs enroll around 2000 kids, ranging from those in elementary school to adolescents attending college. To become an affiliate, programs must enroll children from schools that have a student body of which at least 70% is eligible for free lunch.

Two thousand kids enrolled in 21 programs does not seem like a lot (approximately 95 kids in a program), and could lead some to be critical of NUSEA’s reach, but on closer inspection one can see that to do the sorts of things that they are doing, small numbers are necessary. To be a NUSEA member a program needs to sign on to operating at least five days a week during the school year, with participants attending sessions at least three of these days. Sessions, which run about three hours in duration, blend squash with academic enrichment activities that are closely tied to a child’s schoolwork. They also run weekend practices or tournaments on at least half of the school-year weekends. During the summers, NUSEA also requires that at least 80% of participants attend at least 20+ days of programming. All participants must also do at least 10 hours of community service and/or health and wellness programming each year. Affiliates must also provide college and alumni support for participants up to the age of 24.

What is the impact of this in-depth, small-scale approach? Looking at NUSEA’s flagship program, Boston based SquashBusters, one can not help but be impressed. Out of the 84 of 86 kids who completed the multi-year program between 2003-2014, 86% went on to a four year college, and 14% matriculated at a two year college. In contrast, only 39% of kids in the Boston Public School System fared as well. Additionally, 78% of the SquashBuster cohort that graduated from high school between 2003-2010 and enrolled in college earned a degree.  Ninety-five percent graduated from a four-year college, and 5% graduated from a two-year college. Comparable Boston Public School data showed that twenty-five percent of high-school graduates went on to graduate from college.

While I am not certain that other affiliates can show such impressive results, or that the data can not be criticized for the self-selection effects that could account for “skimming” the most able kids from the demographic served by NUSEA Programs, I remain thoroughly impressed by how the activities in which kids engage relate to, and appear to be causal in, producing such outcomes. What is evident to me is that programs such as SquashBusters enroll kids who meet the criteria of being underserved, and whose families struggle financially, and in many other ways. Yet, these kids are, or become motivated, to work hard and embrace all the “wrap-around” activities that are offered. The sheer number of hours during which kids engage in squash, academics, character education, community service, travel, and college preparation during the school year and during its extensive summer programs rivals the number of hours that they are in school, and clearly becomes an important part of their lives.

This extensive array of activities in which kids engage and the depth to which they do it is the “magic sauce”. Essentially, this is what Greg Zaff, founder of SquashBusters, in 1995, conveyed to me in 2003 when he was in the midst of completing his world class squash facility on the campus of Northeastern University. He acknowledged that some would be critical of how small scale his program was when he started (24 kids), but he believed that to get the kids that he was working with to stay “on the rails” and get to and through college, they needed to be thoroghly engaged, and exposed to all the things that their more advantaged peers experienced as they moved from childhood to adolescents, and from adolescents to adulthood. 

In his recent speech at NUSEA’s annual dinner, honoring him and SquashBuster’s twentieth anniversary, Greg attributed the success of his program to a very simple theme that came from a quote written on the board in a class that he took on health policy. It stated that “All disease results from an absense of love.” While at first blush this may seem like one of those lines that people agree with without much thought about how love and health are intertwined. But,  I think that Greg’s interpretation of this relationship is more nuanced and complex. Physical health may be an important part of this, but in hearing the rest of his talk, he was really thinking about the American Dream, equal opportunity, and the belief that all kids, irrespective of where they start, and how many obstacles they may face as they grow up, can thrive. "Health" is a place holder for thriving.  The “love” part goes beyond the love that a parent gives to a child, and encompasses that which a community gives to it’s children. What Greg envisioned was the squash community, which includes current, and former players, as well as others who have an interest in the sport, providing the human and financial resources to embrace a group of underserved kids, and to provide them with “whatever it takes” for them to compete in a world that, for the most part, have left them behind. 

Greg conveyed that when he first started out he wasn’t certain how to do this, but like a parent who learns what his child needs as she grows, he experimented and, with the help of the squash community, added activities and experiences for the kids that would help them to thrive. In talking with Greg a few years ago, well after SquashBusters had become one of the model program in NUSEA, he reiterated that he still did not have a complex “theory of change”, but increasingly ascribed to the idea that different kids needed different things at different times in their lives, and that programs such as his should do their best to help them to get what they need, whatever these things may be.

What Project Coach has learned from programs like SquashBusters and people like Greg, is that the “magic sauce” of model youth development programs is simple to conceptualize, but time and resource intensive. Like most things that are worthwhile, it entails lots of “practice and work” in some core activity, such as a sport or artistic endeavor, which allows a community of peers, teachers, coaches, and supporters to build scaffolding around each participant to give him or her what he or she needs in transitioning from childhood to adulthood. As Greg and his colleagues have often stated, their programs are not really about developing elite squash players, just as Project Coach is not about developing professional coaches. They are about engaging kids, connecting them to a supportive community, and empowering them to compete with their more priviledged peers in other contexts that will critically impact their futures, such as school.  

We at Project Coach are greatful to Greg, as is NUSEA, for helping us all better understand what youth development work is about. In essence, it is not all that complicated, as he shows us that communities need to love (embrace) their youth and provide them with the things that they need in order to thrive. To paraphrase coaching legend Vince Lombardi, we know how to make this happen, but the question becomes whether or not we have the will to do so? As we learn from Greg, and folks like him, they are “forces of nature” who have shown us how one person’s vision and tenacity can make a difference in the lives of so many struggling kids who start out with little chance of competing in a world increasingly favoring those born into the right circumstances. Yet, SquashBuster kids are beating the odds by a large margin. Just take a look at what his kids think about him and the program that he started 20 years ago.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What do Marshmallows have to do with Youth Development?


Don Siegel

What does eating Marshmallows have to do with youth development?  This sounds like a trick question, but in reality, it turns out that marshmallow eating and youth development work are intricately connected. How so, one may ask?

A new book entitled “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control” by psychologist Walter Mischel tells us about a research program started decades ago with preschoolers. In the paradigm that he, colleagues, and his students used, children were told that they could either eat one marshmallow now, or get two marshmallows if they were willing to wait a few minutes. This was a test of what he labeled “delayed gratification”, or impulse control. As might be expected, some children attacked the marshmallow immediately, but some also were willing to wait in order to get the promised two marshmallow reward. While he writes about how those who waited were able to do so, what really makes this research so interesting is that children in both groups were tracked over decades to determine whether those who were able to “delay gratification” differed from those who opted for “immediate gratification”. What he found is quite astounding. Years later, as adolescents, those who delayed gratification, had “…higher SAT scores, social competence, self-assuredness and self-worth, and were better able to cope with stress, more likely to plan ahead, and more likely to use reason. They were less likely to have conduct disorders or high levels of impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, the high delayers were less likely to have drug problems or other addictive behaviors, get divorced, or be overweight.”

Clearly, being able to control one’s impulses, and in this case, delay gratification and forego immediate rewards in order to gain even more powerful rewards at some future time is a core capacity that permeates just about everything that we do in youth development programs. This is because the aggregate of knowledge, skills, and values that we teach are invariably directed towards helping youth to be successful at endeavors such as school, sports, the arts, music, and other activities that require hours of dedicated study and practice. Those hours are often like the time delay of the marshmallow test in that youth can opt for using such time in immediately gratifying activities such as playing computer games, watching TV, or just hanging out with friends or pursuing less immediately rewarding activities such as studying for an exam, drilling on a sports skill, or playing monotonous scales on an musical instrument.

While we in the youth development world may not think of ourselves as promoting capacities that foster the ability to delay gratification, when we look at what we teach it becomes more evident that this is exactly what we are doing. For example, in one way or another we teach the “growth mindset” which is a way to think about ourselves as life long learners. In support of such, we teach our youth how to set goals, deal with set-backs; persevere (show “grit”); control emotions; focus attention; avoid distractions; minimize interpersonal conflict; and build social support to reinforce one’s striving, especially during periods of little overt progress or when experiencing high amounts of stress.

That some youth are better than others at controlling their impulses and working on longer term goals is evident from decades of behavioral research, and more recently, from studies that show differential activation in brain centers that have been identified as “hot” areas (i.e., those associated with impulse satisfaction) in the more primitive limbic system, and those associated with “cold” areas in the more recently developed neo-cortex. While Mischel writes about how and why these dueling systems developed over time, and the nature-nurture debate about how individual heredity and early experiences strengthen or weaken their manifestations, he also conveys that strategies can be taught and learned to enhance the expression of “cold system” thoughts and behaviors, when such will benefit an individual. In simplest terms, he explains that those young children who were able to wait for the researcher to return to the testing room, in order to get two marshmallows, rather than going for the instantaneous single marshmallow reward, did not simply do so because they had a superior “cold system”, but because they had crafted strategies to divert their attention so that they did not dwell on the powerful sensations associated with eating a marshmallow. Mischel writes:

 Successful delayers created all sorts of ways to distract themselves and to cool the conflict and stress they were experiencing. They transformed the aversive waiting situation by inventing imaginative, fun distractions that took the struggle out of willpower: they composed little songs (“ This is such a pretty day, hooray”; “This is my home in Redwood City”), made funny and grotesque faces, picked their noses, cleaned their ear canals and toyed with what they discovered there, and created games with their hands and feet, playing their toes as if they were piano keys. When all other distractions were exhausted, some closed their eyes and tried to go to sleep— like one little girl who finally dropped her head into her folded arms on the table and fell into a deep slumber, her face inches from the signal bell. While these tactics were a marvel to behold in preschoolers, they are familiar to anyone who has ever been trapped in the front row at a boring lecture[1].   

The message from these initial studies, and those conducted subsequently on impulse control, is that virtually anyone can create or be taught strategies to frame situations in such a way as to decrease the impulse to act immediately when more deliberate planning and thoughtful restraint will serve to benefit them more.

An interesting side note, discussed by Mischel, of particular interest to youth development programs that attempt to develop assets in participants that have transferable value across contexts is that the capacity to control “hot” areas is largely situation specific. Despite initial beliefs that people possessed generalizable traits that manifested themselves consistently across contexts, research and current events tells us that such traits only represent a potential for behavior. Current conditions, and environments can play an overpowering role in how one behaves, despite inherent dispositions. As Mischel conveys, well know persons such as former president Bill Clinton, or golfer Tiger Woods had an incredible ability to forgo immediate gratification (highly controlled individuals we might have thought) in pursuit of their core goals (i.e., political or sport success), but when it came to other aspects of their life, were unable or unwilling to invoke the same deliberate control and discipline, which ultimately got them into trouble.

The message here, for those of us attempting to help youth develop assets that are deployable across contexts, is to be deliberate about teaching for transfer. In Mischel’s way of thinking, he suggests that individual’s must not only possess capabilities, but understand how to deploy them. A large part of this entails thinking in terms of “If”…”then” in that “if” a certain situation arises, and I have a tendency to behave rashly or without forethought (i.e., the “hot” system predominates), and this results in less than optimal outcomes, as may be expected, “then” I need to step back and draw on those assets I possess, perhaps deployed in other contexts, and exert control (i.e., invoke the “cold” system) so that my behavior helps me to achieve what I want, or, at least does not derail me from achieving what I wish to achieve. In a sense this is what cognitive behaviorists allude to as “inoculation training”, which entails helping individuals make decisions and prepare for situations that they may subsequently encounter so that they perform optimally in the heat of the moment, rather than being usurped by their “hot”, impulsive, systems.

Overall, The Marshmallow Test, helps those of us working with youth to better understand what it is that we are trying to achieve. In essence we are teaching our kids an array of things, and helping them to build an arsenal of capabilities that can be deployed across a range of situations so that they are ultimately successful in transitioning from childhood to adolescence, and then to adulthood. Most importantly, we are teaching them self-understanding, and how to negotiate the maze of situations in their lives that can result in a happy and healthy future, or to derail them from having such lives. Optimal development, as Mischel shows us, is intricately tied to waiting for that second Marshmallow, which is all about recognizing and controlling our “hot” impulses in order to acquire greater long-term rewards.


[1] Mischel, Walter (2014-09-23). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (Kindle Locations 328-334). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mindfulness Should be a Core Skill in Youth Development: More on The Clarissa Effect


Mindfulness Should be a Core Skill in Youth Development: More on The Clarissa Effect

Don Siegel

Last Spring Project Coach had a guest presenter who conducted several sessions on an attentional focusing technique called Mindfulness. As taught, participants were instructed to breathe rhythmically and to focus their attention on various sensations and thoughts that passed through their minds while they sat quietly in a circle. The overall point of the exercise was to try and teach PCers that it is important to be able to focus their attention on what is occurring in the present if they and their players are to perform optimally, as dwelling on the past or worrying about the future has little bearing on what one is doing in the moment. Great athletes have learned to be mindful while performing, leaving thoughts about the past and future to their training sessions. As we have been told by our coaches, “don’t worry about what just occurred, be in the moment.” But, as so many of us know, these directions are a lot easier conveyed by coaches than followed by players. Like other self-regulatory skills, such as managing stress, learning to stay in the present takes practice. The breathing strategy deployed by our guest presenter was a good starting point. Nonetheless, we found that staying in the moment was not so simple, as we needed to learn how to allow any disruptive thoughts to passively, and non-judgmentally, pass through our minds while we refocused on the actual sights, sounds, and sensations impinging on us.

While athletes and coaches know the value of being in the present, another take on the value of mindfulness relates to what I labeled The Clarissa Effect in my last post. This entails the phenomenon of program participants starting to thrive only after years of little change. In Clarissa’s case, she behaved poorly for a number of years, but all of a sudden started to bloom, once she realized how much her peers and program staff cared about what she needed and wanted, and how her own attitudes and behavior had been counterproductive to her development. The question for all of us who have seen this story play out time and again is what changed in Clarissa? Why did it take so long for her to follow a more positive trajectory? Could it be that her self-perceptions and view of the world was biased by ingrained images of an unhappy past, and a lack of hope for the future?  Was Clarissa’s transformation prolonged because of her inability to better understand her present situation, in which she was engaged in an array of enriching experiences and supported by peers and program staff who cared about her?

As conveyed in my previous post I alluded to Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about the disconnect between our experiencing self (Self 1), and our conscious self (Self 2). The gist of his contention is that Self 2, which is the self with which we have internal conversations, and the one that we think of as playing a critical role in the choices that we make and the behaviors that we emit, is greatly influenced by our recall of past experiences. As Kahneman tells us, Self 2 also bases such judgments on somewhat biased memories of those experiences, as it has a tendency to recall “peaks and valleys” of those experiences and how they ultimately ended, more so than the actual ongoing stream of experience itself. Consequently, a youth may be engaged in activities that are intrinsically rewarding, highly developmental, and socially redeeming, but may only label and recall her experience of them by sampling a few salient events occurring within them that may not authentically reflect their true meaning and value to her while involved. For example, someone like Clarissa may be participating in a game of soccer that she seems to thoroughly enjoy, but because of an altercation that occurs late in the game with a peer, and a subsequent reprimand from a staff member, may result in her Self 2 labeling the activity unpleasant, and counterproductive to her personal development, even though a large portion of her engagement in the activity was extremely positive. Indeed, she may have learned or enhanced her soccer skills, discovered new ways to foster teamwork with her fellow players, revealed leadership qualities that she heretofore was not aware of, and enjoyed the mental and physical challenges of sport. Yet, the altercation and its aftermath leave Self 2 painting a very different and negative picture of the overall experience.

I wish to contend that just as mindfulness training can enhance an athlete’s capacity to perform in the present, it can also be deployed to help Self 2 better connect with Self 1. Seemingly, if this is so, then it may be possible to weaken The Clarissa Effect as Self 2 would get a richer perspective of the many developmental experiences a youth experiences when participating in a sport based or other youth development program. The idea here would be for youth to better understand how what Self 1 experiences is not necessarily what Self 2 recalls, and that Self 2 needs to do a better job of recalling more of what Self 1 is experiencing, just as coaches do when they review game film. More succinctly, if we believe that exposing youth to enriching experiences impacts their development, then youth need to understand what these experiences are, what they are learning from them, how participation in them makes them feel, and how such experiences can impact who they are and how they behave across various contexts in their lives. On the other hand, if youth are less able to process all the positive developmental experiences to which they are exposed, then it seems likely that such exposure will have less of an effect on them, and that The Clarissa Effect will have greater potency.

While I do not know of any strategies for using Mindfulness Training in this manner, I would like to propose that we start by adapting a protocol from the Experience Sampling Methodology (ESM), a technique pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the originator of Flow Theory. Using ESM, subjects are typically probed at random times while engaging in an activity by answering such questions as what are you doing, who are you with, how are you feeling, what are you thinking about, what are you learning, who are you helping, etc? The basic notion is that by asking youth such questions at random points during their activities Self 2 will become much more aware of ongoing experience, and, thus, recall these ongoing experiences much more readily in constructing their summative memories of them. Project Coach has actually run several ESM studies and data from them support the notion that youth are able to assess their ongoing experiences quite accurately. However, we have not yet tested whether their Self 2 recalls of those experiences correlate highly with what their Self 1’s are saying. Clearly, teaching our youth to be mindful goes well beyond them learning to kick a ball better or teaching their players to shoot it more accurately. If deployed creatively, my guess is that it can greatly decrease the time kids like Clarissa get to “takeoff” velocity.