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Helping Children Under Stress Make the Grade : Stages Program Designed to Aid Students Experiencing Change in Home Life

December 08, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

When my parents got divorced all the light in my life went out like a shade of darkness.

--Written on an Irvine third-grader's drawing of a dark cloud

Irvine elementary school principal Ron Moreland had been divorced for several years in the mid-'70s when he noticed his two sons were having problems in school.

"My kids were going through quite an adjustment in light of the fact that they were young and didn't really understand why their natural parents couldn't still be together," he said. "They carried that misunderstanding with them and it showed up in their academic progress: They were really backsliding academically."

Moreland also began observing the same phenomenon at Turtle Rock Elementary School where he was then assistant administrator.

"I noticed a lot of kids who came to my office for behavior problems concurrently were experiencing some disruptions in their home life," he said. "They'd come to school with a depressed, confused feeling, and it would show up both behaviorally and academically. Many kids had difficulty getting back on track."

Time for Program

Convinced that divorce and other traumatic family changes can have a profound effect on a child's progress in school, Moreland felt it was "high time" that the schools produced a program to help students cope with stressful life transitions.

"I felt," Moreland said, "it was important for someone to help them deal with change: How do we adapt to change and understand that a life doesn't end with that condition and that there is hope thereafter?"

The result of Moreland's concern is Stages, a pioneer educationally based program developed through the Irvine Unified School District.

The 5-year-old program, which is disseminated by the school district's Guidance Projects division, provides training for classroom teachers and school counselors to help students understand and cope with traumatic family changes such as divorce, separation, a death in the family or frequent moves.

Initially funded for development by a two-year grant administered by the state Department of Education, Stages was implemented in five Irvine elementary schools in 1980.

Today, the program is offered in about 600 schools in about 200 school districts throughout California and 23 states.

And the number continues to grow.

Educational consultant Christine Honeyman, who was hired to write the Stages curriculum, and educational consultant Deborah King are on the road an average of twice a week conducting training sessions for teachers, counselors and administrators.

Sold Out Fast

To illustrate the growing popularity of the program, Honeyman said that a 100-copy first-printing of Stages' new junior high-high school curriculum sold out within 20 days. Previously, she said, it had taken six months to a year to sell that many.

According to Honeyman, Stages is a program whose time has come.

Citing U.S. Bureau of Census statistics, Honeyman said that in the 1960s 8% of students nationwide were living in single-parent homes. In the 1970s the figure was 17%, and by the 1980s it had risen to 40%.

For children born in 1980, Honeyman said, the Census Bureau projects that 48% will live about four years with one parent.

In fact, she said, some high school principals say that at least 80% of their students have been through a divorce, are going through a separation or are living in a step-family situation.

Statistically, she added, less than 16% of all families fall into the "traditional family" category with the father going off to work and the mother staying home with the kids.

Indeed, she says, "the norm is not the traditional family anymore. The norm is a changing family."

Significant Trauma

Honeyman, who has a master's degree in counseling and a counseling credential, emphasizes that it's not that every child who goes through a divorce is traumatized or that single-parent homes are a negative environment. But, she said, studies show that the initial breakdown of the family is a significant trauma for many children.

Studies show, she said, that children often experience a mourning reaction to separation or divorce that is similar to the death of a loved one. Children, she said, also may experience stress due to separation and divorce and internalize this stress with feelings of denial, guilt, loneliness and sadness.

And, Honeyman said, "some research studies are showing it's a long-term crisis rather than a short-term crisis.

"Sometimes the child may seem to be processing through the first change of the divorce and the parent thinks everything is fine. Then, with the second major change of a move or a remarriage, the student's behavior significantly changes and the parents are baffled by this. What it means is the child has never really processed through the first change."

Honeyman added that studies show that "some loss in childhood that is not dealt with can show up in adolescence or adulthood in symptoms such as depression, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies."

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