Voices for the Young: Looking Out for Children at Risk

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The Los Angeles juvenile-court system is a world turned upside down, a noisy, chaotic, and frustrating world abounding with injustice. Every element of this institution is in striking counterpoint to the world outside its decaying doors; everything here is diametrically opposed to the norm. The corridors of these courts are populated with parents who are still children themselves, children who know no parent but the state, and baby-faced teenagers charged with crimes worthy of the most hardened adult felons.

Such is the picture presented by Edward Humes in No Matter How Loud I Shout, a firsthand account of one of the most troubled institutions in one of the most troubled areas of the country. The book centers around a judge, a state prosecutor, and several of the children whose cases pass through the court. We see the chronic frustration of each one, a frustration brought about and compounded by a failed system. Most troubling are the stories of the defendants, children who inhabit an adult world but who fight to keep the status of a juvenile--and the more lenient sentences that come with it. Here, more than anywhere else in Mr. Humes' account, is the injustice of the juvenile system apparent. One boy, a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday and the adult status it brings, kills his benevolent employers with a shotgun, but can legally serve time only until he is 25. Another boy, just over 16, is simply present when a juvenile acquaintance commits murder, but he faces life in prison.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes from experience teaching a writing class at a juvenile detention center to the children whose stories he tells, and from this experience comes a tale that readers are likely to find at once infuriating, harrowing, and captivating. Perhaps most poignant are the products of the writing class that are excerpted throughout the book, heartfelt and heartbreaking memoirs from the pens of teenage murderers and armed robbers. (Simon & Schuster)

Between Voice and Silence is something of a "coming of age" book, an examination of the fragile years between the security of childhood and the complexity of the adult world. It focuses on 26 young, working-class girls from diverse cultural and racial backgrounds as they struggle to find their voices as women.

The book is a follow-up to an earlier study of economically privileged girls that found that those young women began to lose their sense of self as they entered adolescence. While in elementary school, they were energetic, vibrant, and self-assured, but in the face of the more complex interpersonal relationships of adolescence, they became withdrawn, quiet, and often depressed. Those who remained vocal and outspoken became excluded as troublemakers, while those who were able to maintain same-sex friendships did so only by giving up their own voices to the cacophony of conformity. We see in the new book that this common developmental crisis is true as well for underprivileged girls, whose plight is only worsened by their socioeconomic status. While the subjects of the first study had a variety of support mechanisms available to them, the young women discussed in Between Voice and Silence lack any outside help in stopping the downward spiral into silence.

The authors--Jill McLean Taylor of Simmons College, Harvard education school professor Carol Gilligan, and Harvard doctoral candidate Amy M. Sullivan--point out that adolescent girls begin to feel isolated long before their distress becomes apparent in their behavior, and suggest that women role models who are able to listen are instrumental in preserving the voices of the young. The book presents several useful ways of developing this essential and even lifesaving dialogue between women and girls from all backgrounds. (Harvard University Press)

The world today places enormous demands and pressures on its children, and the results of this reality are often devastating to the well-being of the child. Yet the common conception that these circumstances affect the poorest children to the greatest extent is incorrect, Harvard University lecturer and national policy consultant Richard Weissbourd argues in The Vulnerable Child. Factors beyond socioeconomic status or racial background play a major part in a child's development; parental stress and depression or frequent moves during childhood are even more important to the emotional and psychological makeup and stability of the young. Other, more personal circumstances such as physical or learning disabilities are also crucial contributors to childhood outcomes.

With this position firmly asserted, the author goes on to explain that many earlier attempts at helping children failed because of the misconceptions about risk factors; when only the most economically disadvantaged children were targeted for help, those suffering from noneconomic stressors were unintentionally ignored. Society must be responsible for all children, he argues, for even those from the most fashionable neighborhoods and the best schools may be at risk.

In the second part of the book, Mr. Weissbourd examines several programs that have taken this more inclusive viewpoint and have succeeded because of it. These programs address the issue from a variety of standpoints in areas ranging from education to health care to community policing. Each one works from the common ideal that children can be helped by providing them with meaningful and challenging opportunities and through strengthening the family structure that directly supports the child.

While it is unquestionable that socioeconomic disadvantage is a great factor in the lives of many at-risk children, there are many other children whose well-being is not linked to their economic backgrounds. This book points out the often overlooked fact that every child can be a vulnerable child. (Addison Wesley)

Since the mid-1950s, the number of children in the United States labeled either learning or reading disabled has skyrocketed. Yet, as the authors of a new book argue, this is not due to a decrease in the intellectual capacity of the nation's young people, but rather to an increase in the willingness of schools to label their students deficient. Contrary to popular belief, they say, the placement of a student in special education is not entirely beneficial to him, and often consigns him to a school career in which he is isolated from other students and held to less challenging expectations. This treatment may culminate in a lifetime of reading problems.

This premise underlies Robert J. Sternberg and Louise Spear-Swerling's argument in Off Track: When Poor Readers Become Learning Disabled. Schools must throw out the traditional definition of "learning disabled," the authors contend, and instead see students who are below-average readers as having fallen "off track" on their way to reading proficiency. They map out the steps in this track and then illustrate, using case studies and recent research in cognitive psychology, the possible pitfalls that a child may run into and the corrections that must be made to put him back on track. This new theoretical model for reading deficiency identifies four of these pitfalls and describes the methods useful in diagnosing them.

Written by professors of psychology and education at Yale and Southern Connecticut State universities, Off Track is aimed at both teachers and parents. It presents them with a way of looking at learning disabilities that is based on the source of the reading problem instead of on its effect. Rather than classifying a student on the strength or weakness of his proficiency, the authors advocate identification of the problem's cause before steps are taken to correct it--and before the child is condemned to a life of frustration and disappointment in the classroom. (Westview)

--David Field

Vol. 15, Issue 27

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