BRAINTREE, Mass. — This classroom lesson is different. Forget about the decimals and fractions, the grammar, the Roman Empire. This is a course in how to be a better kid.
The Braintree public schools are among more than 1,000 schools across the nation that added a course called Skills for Adolescence to their curriculum this school year. About 150,000 boys and girls ages 10 to 14 will take part.
Educators hope that the program will keep the youngsters off drugs and alcohol and off the streets, reduce teen-age pregnancies and perhaps prevent suicides.
Dealing With Frustration
Experts who planned the course say it is designed to get children to deal with deep feelings such as anger, hurt and frustration that can be destructive if held inside. Children are taught to discuss their problems and to try to be aware of those of their peers.
"A lot of the kids who get into problems with drugs and alcohol are kids whose self-esteem is very low, kids who don't know how to deal with their emotions, kids who have not such good communication with their parents," said Conrad Shultz, who taught the classes at Braintree East and South middle schools. "These are some of the areas the curriculum addresses."
The lessons are simple but poignant. They got 11-year-old Chad Smith to notice a friend who was down.
"A kid named Matt, he was feeling sad," Chad said. "I told him that he was good at baseball, and I asked him to play baseball with me."
Janelle Sampey, 12, said she liked the "happy-grams" provided in their workbooks. These half-sheets of paper encourage the children to say nice things to other kids as well as teachers, custodians and other members of the school community.
'Now We're Friends'
"I sent one to a friend," Janelle said. "We were in a fight. The next day, she called me up and apologized. So now we're friends."
The lesson plan suggests questions such as: "Why is it important to reach out to others when they're feeling sad, discouraged, lonely or rejected? What does it do for them? For you? How many of you have ever wanted to share your feelings with someone but were afraid to? What makes it difficult to share feelings?"
In one recent class here, the sixth-graders were asked to list some of the good and bad things that had happened to them.
"When someone said you are good at hockey. When someone said I stink at hockey," wrote 11-year-old Jeff Maguire.
"Bought my brother a candy bar. Beat up my brother," said Jason Williams, 11.
"When my friend invited me to her cottage in the Cape (Cod). When my friend ignored me," wrote 11-year-old Danielle LaFountain.
What Scares Children?
"What are some of the things that get people to feel scared at this age?" Shultz asked the class.
"What about real-life-type things?"
"Like say some big kid, like he gives you a push."
"Are there any other feelings that you can think of that teen-agers experience?"
"Depression from hangovers," another child responded matter-of-factly.
Skills for Adolescence was created by the Quest National Center in Columbus, Ohio, a nonprofit organization that develops educational programs.
Mother Attempted Suicide
Quest was started 11 years ago by Rick Little, then a 19-year-old freshman at Anderson College in Indiana. An auto accident had broken Little's back, leaving him partly but temporarily paralyzed and in braces for a year. Three weeks after he came home from the hospital, his alcoholic mother attempted suicide.
"That series of events," Little said, "gave birth to Quest, born out of real pain for me and for our family, as well as the pain I saw in friends in my school and other schools in the area.
"I became aware of my mother's alcoholism when I was in the eighth grade," he said. "I never shared that with a teacher or friend. Part of the reason was anger and guilt. I felt like nobody really understood. My school had no systematic, thoughtful approach to helping students deal with some critical issues."
In 1975, Little sent a proposal to 155 foundations and received 155 rejections. His 156th letter went to the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., which gave him $130,000.
Quest, founded with that initial grant, is now financed with revenues from its courses and with other foundation and corporate grants, Little said.
Grade-School Drug Use
Little's first program, called Skills for Living, was for high school students. School officials said they liked the program but also needed one for grades six to eight because of an alarming increase in drug and alcohol use among younger children.
According to Quest, recent surveys show that the average age for first use of alcohol or drugs among American youths is about 12 1/2 and that 87% of all adolescents use alcohol and 66% experiment with marijuana by the time they graduate from high school.
Quest brought together 57 educators, psychologists and researchers, who put together Skills for Adolescence over the last 2 1/2 years. The introduction to the lesson plan says that they had perceived a need to develop character and responsibility in students at a younger age.
"Often, these aspects of education have been lost in the clamor for higher test scores," the introduction says.
The cost of the 18-week program to each school ranges from $800 to $3,000, depending on the number of teachers trained and the number of students who receive the course material.
Chapter by Comedian
The material includes workbooks and a text, "Changes: Becoming the Best You Can Be," the first chapter of which, on the challenges of growing up, was written by comedian Bill Cosby.
At some schools, the course costs are paid by local affiliates of Lions Clubs International, in affiliation with Quest, Little said.