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Success in Early Grades Said Key to Well-Being

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Schools have been isolated for too long in the overwhelming task of socializing children "in terms of the basic skills needed in the marketplace and in later social and psychological life," argues the chief researcher in the Baltimore project on symptoms of maladjustment in the early grades.

Dr. Sheppard G. Kellam, the Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist who is heading the project, maintains that a child's initial transition from home to school, and his or her success in the early grades, is crucial to later well-being. But society, he argues, has been "failing to prepare children in 1st grade to succeed at the core learning tasks needed in 2nd grade in horrendous numbers."

"In order to turn our suicidal path in a different direction," he says, the schools are going to have to do far more early assessments of children's progress; strengthen the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic; and teach educators some behavior-management techniques. That effort, he says, will require new and expanded roles for schools and for such traditional professionals as school nurses, pediatricians, and teachers.

New Partnerships

It will also require new partnerships between schools and human-services agencies, which now act as "grocery stores" isolated from school problems, says Dr. Kellam. In particular, he notes, teachers' ratings of student progress can provide "strong signals" for such agencies to step in to help those who are experiencing difficulties and their families.

"Most teachers," he says, "are very sensitive to the turmoil of transition from home to school. But very few mental-health professionals are connected closely enough to that transition and to the classroom process to help out. What we're suggesting is that by a broader shared interest in that transition, which includes the early assessment of all children and the availability of human services, we can move toward a more prevention-oriented transition from home to school."

School's Growing Importance

Families have a dominant influence on children's well-being very early in life, Dr. Kellam notes. "But as the learning tasks develop in 1st grade, the child's success or failure in school, the teacher, and the school authorities take on an increasingly powerful importance" in how a child feels about himself or herself, he points out.

Eventually, the child's success or failure in school takes over as a "vitally important core experience" that is highly predictive of later mental health. In fact, early school success or failure predicts far more about children's future emotional6well-being than researchers once believed or hoped was possible, according to Dr. Kellam.

Learning the First Time

"I'm a psychiatrist, and not a teacher or an educator," he says, "but the thing that's striking to me, in working with children within the school context for many years, is that learning the few words in 1st grade required to move on to 2nd grade is so much easier than learning what you need to catch up three to five years later.

"It's easier, in part, because the child has not solidified a sense of failure and a sense of being different," he continues. "Every child has to feel some sense of integrity as a person, and you either do that by learning to read and succeeding in the mainstream, or by getting a sense of who you are in another way--either through withdrawing or through aggression and antisocial behavior or through psychiatric distress and mental disorder.

"As a society, our priorities are often upside down when it comes to children," the researcher concludes. "The mental-health needs of children have to begin with how adequately we help them enter into our society from home to school. It's not the mental-health services that are the first issue, but how strongly we supply resources in the classroom and in the form of back-up help for teachers."--lo

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