The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 11, 1999


What Carlisle Schools do to help students assess cultural messages

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, the keynote speaker at the Concord-Carlisle Stand for Children Forum on June 4, identified two separate but equally distressing messages addressed to boys and girls from American culture. (See article on page 7) For boys, the message is that it is okay to express feelings through violence, and for girls, the message is that they must match the culture's standard for physical beauty. Carlisle Public School guidance, health and teaching staff employ different strategies to help students assess these messages.


Elementary school guidance counselor Lauren Scott pointed to the school's open circle program as the primary tool employed in the classroom to help children learn acceptable ways of dealing with strong emotions. In the open circle ("open" because one seat is always left free for a visitor to join the group), feelings are identified, validated and solutions for acceptably dealing with them are proposed. Anger management is a common topic and children discuss what to say and do when they are upset. The open circle explores ways to engage friends and adults to help an angry child use words and not violent actions to express this feeling.

Steiner-Adair mentioned that the open circle is a particularly effective way for schools to deal with stirred-up feelings after recess. Scott concurred and cited the example of a playground game in which some children pretend to shoot other children. The teacher uses the circle to talk about what is appropriate behavior for school and that shooting somebody is not funny.

The open circle is part of the elementary school curriculum and Scott stated that there are plans to extend it to the middle school as well.

With respect to the school's reaction to violence that occurs outside the school, such as the Columbine High School tragedy, Scott said, "We walk a fine line." Many parents want to address these incidents at home. "We monitor the situation, see how kids are feeling," she said, and unless the teachers hear a lot of discussion, they generally do not focus attention on the event.


School nurse and health teacher Kathy Horan stated that under state law the school is required to weigh and measure each child yearly. If she notices that a child has lost weight or has not gained a normal amount of weight, Horan will notify the parent, teacher and guidance staff. Sometimes the gym teacher will bring to the nurse's attention a child who is not keeping up with activity. Sometimes a parent will notify the nurse of a concern. In the middle school, Horan said that girls may tell her about a friend who skips lunch or has lost weight or has said she is on a diet. In each case, the teacher and staff will then keep a close watch on whether the child is eating snack and lunch.

In terms of curriculum, Horan said that the new state health frameworks mention eating disorders but the main focus is on nutrition and getting children to know how to eat a healthy balanced diet. During the puberty program, which begins in fifth grade, eating properly is also addressed.

In this area, too, the school treads carefully between respecting family values and giving children what they need. Horan described a program in Acton, where she lives, which focused on eating disorders. "It created a huge uproar," Horan said because one parent claimed that the program caused an eating disorder in her child. Steiner-Adair, who runs the center on eating disorders at Harvard University and has developed a 20-session curriculum on eating disorders, recognizes the hazards. Her program never mentions eating disorders, she said, because she wants to raise awareness of the underlying causes without "spreading the tricks of the trade." As Horan concluded, "We try to find a happy medium."

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito