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Piecing together the behavioral puzzle

Steve Curtis at the Sunrise Drive offices of Lifespan. Both Curtis’s new book and his approach to therapy focus on children’s strengths.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Steve Curtis at the Sunrise Drive offices of Lifespan. Both Curtis’s new book and his approach to therapy focus on children’s strengths.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

t Child-clinical psychologist Steve Curtis presents a new book to a local audience.

Child-clinical psychologist Steve Curtis once worked with a parent who, through the course of trying to figure out why her second-grader still wasn’t writing, clocked time with 30 specialists.

And she was still confused about what was “wrong” and what to do.

Having observed this phenomenon time and time again, Curtis set about synthesizing the clinical and philosophical approach he’d found successful in his own practice. Setting aside obvious cases of severely abnormal behavior, he focused on creating a resource that would help families of children who were struggling in school with behavioral, social and learning challenges without a clear indication about why. Kids whose behavior was, in a word, puzzling.

“I wanted to write a book that taught parents to figure this out for themselves,” Curtis said.

After telling the story of the 30-specialist parent, Curtis further illustrated what inspired the writing of “Understanding Your Child’s Puzzling Behavior,” published last month.

He spread out a mind-bending array of roughly two-dozen laminated cards on the floor, each with the name of a provider: from nutritionist to occupational therapist to optometrist to audiologist to special education teacher to child psychiatrist.

The process of assessing or diagnosing what’s going on with a child who is struggling, Curtis said, typically exposes a family to 10 of these providers.

Noticing poor motor coordination, for instance, a physical education teacher may recommend an occupational therapist, who noticing attention challenges might then recommend an audiologist, who then might send the family to a speech and language pathologist, who noticing hyperactive behavior in groups may point to a child psychiatrist.

Along the way, a friend might hand over an article about the influence of diet, leading the family on a side trip to the family doctor, a nutritionist or a naturopath.

Each of these specialists in turn will approach the child’s problem from his or her unique professional perspective.

The occupational therapist could focus on helping the child regulate sensorial processes; the naturopath might suggest ways to reduce heavy metals in the diet; the speech pathologist could home in on skill-building in groups.

And each has something worthwhile to offer the struggling child. The difficulty – and the specialists themselves might be the first to agree – lies in the fact that families are so often taken through this vast circuit of providers and receive multiple diagnoses before arriving at a manageable, balanced treatment approach that takes the whole child into account.

And along the way, information overload can easily ensue.

“The tools are too complex; the diagnoses aren’t necessarily super descriptive or helpful,” Curtis said.

Toning down the diagnostic noise and arriving at a simpler approach lies at the heart of “Understanding Your Child’s Puzzling Behavior,” which, like Curtis’s practice, takes what he calls a “strength-based” approach that looks closely at the areas where a child excels and the things that make a kid happy, as well as where their areas for development are.

A child’s passion areas, not perceived deficits, should form the core of any intervention or therapeutic approach.

“You can sit there and nit-pick (a child’s problems) to death, or you can look at what she’s good at, and start pouring it on,” Curtis said.

As the ones who know their kids best, parents also play a critical role in their children’s successes. To that end, the book, subtitled “A Guide for Parents of Children with Behavioral, Social, and Learning Challenges,” takes a practical, step-by-step approach that parents themselves can use to help navigate diagnostic and therapeutic waters as they collaborate with professionals to arrive at a sound game plan.

Part of success, Curtis notes, is possessing a clear understanding both of one’s own value system, and the culture and value system in which one operates.

For instance, schools, operating under a group learning model and under pressure to succeed according to standardized criteria, may place a high value on kids getting along with others, or on certain brands of academic success.

Kids whose fundamental makeup places them outside the framework may have trouble coping, thriving or succeeding. That, in turn, propels their parents to seek a diagnosis and treatment for a problem that may not be an intrinsic problem, but instead a different set of operating parameters.

“I think we’re pathologizing normal childhood behavior,” Curtis said.

And, at what cost? He points to the example of Sir Isaac Newton, who was known for going off into his own head for days at a time, not speaking to anyone, just working out formulas.

“What would they call him these days?” Curtis said. “He’d sit there for hours and write these numbers out, and people thought he was nuts.”

Had some well-intentioned or status-quo-focused adult applied current diagnostic and therapeutic system to Newton’s social “problem,” we may have squandered the formula for gravity.

At Lifespan, the island-based practice Curtis formed with his wife, Jane, nine years ago, the Curtises take the same sort of holistic approach to intervention that suffuses the book.

Located in a cheerful yellow house on Sunrise Drive, Lifespan incorporates Steve’s and Jane’s practices – he sees children, she specializes in adults – as well as those of a professional tutor, a speech and language pathologist and an educational specialist in school psychology.

Services include individual, family and group therapy as well as psychological/neuropsychological assessments; parent workshops and training; speech and language assessments; and educational assessments and consults among others.

“One-stop shopping” is an oversimplification, but Curtis does like the idea that after years of working across the water, he and Jane have been able to establish a thriving practice that serves a diverse yet connected set of needs, within their own community.

Curtis also stresses that his approach isn’t about bashing schools or the public school framework.

His own kids are part of the Bainbridge public school system, and he has worked directly with local elementary schools.

His point, and one that the book makes too, is that parents need to take charge of their kids’ education, and create their own goals that are based on their children’s passions and strength as well as areas for growth.

The approach could incorporate simple steps. If a child loves fashion design but consistently tunes out core academics while doodling throughout school hours, she could enroll in a sewing or design course at another time of day, to channel that energy.

If a child is having trouble with the core P.E. curriculum but adores Jackie Chan movies, an entry-level martial arts class might be a likely entry point into exercise.

And if a child is really into building model ships but isn’t so great on the social front, is that really so bad? Not fitting in, Curtis says, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “abnormal.” And if a child can grow into an adult who says, in a self-aware and matter-of-fact way, “I’m a terrific boat builder. But I don’t like to be with other people very much,” then that, in his or her own terms, offers a clear indicator of healthy self-esteem and intrinsic success.

To get there, parents have to nurture their children’s passions. And maybe internalize a simple lesson themselves.

“Kids have to have joy in their lives every day,” Curtis said.

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