Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
September 9, 2000 - Issue 18

Save the Children
by Janel States James Navajo/Hopi Observer

art by Sam English

Breaking the cycle: stopping substance abuse before it starts

It is impossible to walk into Jeddito Elementary School without being struck by its beauty—multi-colored walls and ceilings, skylights, an open courtyard, comfortable classroom spaces. The school welcomes the visitor, and certainly must welcome the child.

As in most schools around the country, Jeddito teachers, staff and administrators want to do what is best for their students. Sometimes that means being more than just a teacher; they must be mentors and friends, dealing with tough problems their students can encounter once they leave school grounds, problems like parental substance-abuse.

On this day, August 11, Jeddito teachers, administrators and staff have gathered for their final day of an In-Service training--Save the Child/Save the Teen a program designed to help teachers break the substance abuse cycle and help these bright, young kids stay in school.

The Save the Child/Save the Teen program, run by Vincente de la Garza of the Sobriety Training Institute, is holistic in its approach to help "at-risk" kids. While the employees of Jeddito learned how to redirect misbehavior during the three-day training, they also examined other factors which can negatively affect a Native American child’s education, some of which go back 200 years.

Cultural invasion-drinking habits

De la Garza feels that in order to break the substance abuse cycle, we must understand substance abuse patterns, patterns developed long ago when Native America underwent a cultural invasion by the Europeans. Native Americans, he points out, did not distill alcohol (and so had no experience with the substance) before the Europeans arrived. But settlers, miners, and trappers required heavy drinking during trading and almost all other interactions. Coupled with the Native American "cultural trait" of generosity, and the "reciprocal pressures to accept the generosity," Native Americans felt compelled to drink.

America’s prohibition policies also reinforced "heavy drinking" among indigenous populations. Although "White America" had this unsuccessful policy in place for just 13 years, Indian Prohibition was in place for a whopping 121 years, from 1832-1953. And while the double standard caused resentment and defiance among Native peoples, those "years of illegality helped to foster abusive drinking styles." With one eye open for the police, Native Americans began to practice "secretive, quick drinking." Since drinking habits are a learned behavior, says de la Garza, the cycle had begun.

As for theories linking alcoholism to a specific gene, de la Garza could not disagree more. "There is no such thing as an Indian alcoholic gene. There has never been an alcoholic gene identified for any group of people," he says, and accepting such a theory is dangerous. "If we believe there is a gene responsible for alcoholism, we all assume we are doomed"—doomed to drink, and doomed to be alcoholics.

In stark contrast, says de la Garza, and what very few people know, says de la Garza, is that "indigenous peoples have the highest rate of teetotalers,"—those who don't drink at all.

Cultural invasion-learning styles

Cultural invasion has also affected learning styles. Dr. Lula Mae Stago, who works with de la Garza, has done extensive research in the effects of cultural invasion on indigenous peoples. Cultural invasion, she says, is the root cause of all social problems, including alcoholism, because it caused indigenous people to "think hopelessly, to lose heart."

"People adopted a view of themselves as objects, as victims. They started to believe that they could not think for themselves."

This oppressive conditioning was furthered by boarding schools, where efforts to obliterate Native people’s language and culture were intense.

Although schools have changed quite a bit since then, many teachers remain "untrained in the unique motivational triggers, anger responses and values of Native American children, and feel they must rely on alternative school settings for our children. These alternative schools result in our children being labeled as problem students, with little chance of completing school," says de la Garza.

"These bright, bright Indian kids are asked to learn at the expense of their identity, says Stago. "Teaching strategies lean too much toward linguistic memorization, verbal direction and fill in the blank."

Kids learn best, says Stago, when they can creating meaning for themselves, through experiential learning—the hands-on approach.

"These kids have been forced to learn in a way that does not work, does not connect with their culture. Academic concepts are taught from the wrong perspective. But schools control the conditions for learning," she says. "We can change the way the children are taught."

Reaching today's children

Vincente de la Garza believes that with positive, prevention-oriented techniques, and an awareness of the values Native American children have, the cycles of substance abuse can be broken in Native communities.
Bringing in popular sports stars to talk to kids about how they overcame their problems with substance abuse actually sends a negative message to kids, says de la Garza, by associating substance abuse with a role model.

"We must stop rewarding drug users with special attention," says one Jeddito teacher, "and should concentrate on helping those who are not in trouble in drug from getting involved with drugs."

The idea is simple, says de la Garza. "The key to stopping adolescent violence and drug use is with the youth themselves. Regardless of adult wishes, youthful peer pressure will almost always prevail over adult cautions."

In fact, giving kids the survival skills to deal with substance abuse, rather than blaming parents for not getting involved in their children's education, is of tantamount importance. De la Garza points out that teachers "cannot cure the parents. Prevention for the children is the only hope."

De la Garza recommends that teachers bring up substance abuse in their classes, "as a non-threatening subject." They can effectively, "provide students with the information they need, before they need it."

De la Garza also trains teachers to recognize some of the signs of children who are in problematic situations at home, and gives concrete advice on how to handle misbehavior that results from the inevitable stress and anxiety these children feel.

De la Garza and Stago have also developed techniques to "depersonalize and redirect misbehavior while opening doors" for students, letting them know that they always have someone they can talk to.

An important step in this process is letting go of what de la Garza calls the "anger response." De la Garza points out that "children behave as they feel," and some event or problem at home may actually be causing a child to cuss or steal or bully other children.

"Becoming angry [with this behavior]," says de la Garza, "is counterproductive and is unprofessional. With children, exerting control brings resistance."

In "break-out" groups, the Jeddito staff participated in a variety of exercises to deal with misbehavior, learning how to change their tone of voice, to use body language to diffuse a tense situation, to allow a troubled student to help determine their own punishment, while teaching that student a value at the same time. This redirects confrontations into positive interactions.

The Institute has developed a seven-step process to deal with misbehavior. It is a process, says Stago, that can reduce discipline problems in the classroom up to 99%. Because involving the child is critical, almost everything in the seven-step process is phrased as a question, as in the first step: "Why are you cussing? Is there something going on outside the school that's causing you to do this?"

De la Garza points out that is important not to suggest that the problem is coming from the home, since children should not be made to divulge family information if they do not want to. But if a child offers the information, teachers can begin effective intervention by helping the child remove the guilt he or she may be feeling by letting them know that the situation is not their fault and by letting them know that their parents do love them, "even when they do bad things."

The trick, says Stago, is to remove the guilt and involve the child, and so teachers should identify the behavior (i.e. "what you are doing is cussing"), and ask the child what they, together, will do about it. It is also important to teach a value, to tell the child that cussing is disrespectful, or that honesty is respected, and to suggest an alternative if it is appropriate. "Tell them they can say ‘rats,’ instead," says de la Garza.

All the steps in this process should be completed, says Stago, in under 30 seconds, a skill which takes practice. But the positive reinforcement for the children will create a new environment in which kids can learn and feel secure.

And since the entire staff—bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teachers, staff and administrators—must agree to attend the training, they essentially become an army, working together to help these children.

"If we all gang up with these positives," says one teacher, "how long can the bad energy last?"

Jeddito Elementary transformed

Dr. Rose Rooth, Superintendent of Cedar Unified School District #25 has been very pleased with the results of the training so far. At the final session Friday, she looked around the room at the teachers and staff, noting that at the beginning of the sessions, they were sitting in groups—bus drivers here, teachers there, cafeteria employees over there. On the last day, everyone mixed together. More impressively, just three short days before school was to start, and with much left to do in their individual classrooms, everyone was still attentive, involved and in good spirits.

"These really are our kids," says Rooth. "Everyone here wants to do as well as we can for them. We are all very excited about this program."

For more information on the Save the Child/Save the Teen Program, contact them at 245 Yates, Denver, CO 80219, 1-800-458-8071.

Find information on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome at this site


Art by Sam English:

The Healing Journey, Living in Harmony
2nd Annual National Native American
Children of Alcoholics Conference
Seattle, Washington - November 4-7 1990
The National Association for Native American Children of Alcoholics

One People, One Song
American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Caucus
123rd Annual Meeting of the
American Public Health Association
San Diego, California - October 29 - November 2, 1995

Spirit Bird Leading Them
SEATTLE, WA. - APRIL 28-30, 1992 - ALBUQUERQUE, NM - MAY 12-14, 1992 - MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 16-19, 1992



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