Culture change: Positive Influences works to help children with behavioral and mental illnesses
By John Joyce
Published in News on June 12, 2013 1:46 PM
Jamaury Hawkins, 8, introduces himself during an "Intro to Anger" lesson at Positive Influences Inc. in Goldsboro. The program is designed for children with diagnosed behavioral and mental illness issues and teaches them constructive ways to identify and modify their own actions.
Demani Barnes, 6, raises her hand to tell Positive Influences site manager Aschia McNair about a time she was embarrassed during an "Intro to Anger" lesson at Positive Influences Inc. in Goldsboro.
Tiffany Dowell juggles almost seamlessly the demands of single parenthood with the difficulty of being an entrepreneur with business locations in two communities.
She shuffles back and forth between Tarboro and Goldsboro.
Sleep doesn't come regularly.
"That's life," she said.
Four years ago, the mental health care professional recognized the need within her community for children with diagnosed mental illnesses and behavioral issues, as well as their families, to have a safe place to come to receive treatment and learn the coping skills necessary for a successful life.
Positive Influences Inc. began in Tarboro in 2009 with treatment programs geared toward adults, including substance abuse programs, psychological-sociological rehabilitation and DWI counseling.
Soon after, it started programs for children.
In March 2012, Ms. Dowell brought her youth-oriented treatment programs to 221 W. Walnut St. in Goldsboro.
"We provide outpatient therapy, medication management, day treatment and intensive in-home treatment for children and their families," she said.
Ms. Dowell grew up with an aunt who suffered from mental illness and knows well the stigma that comes along with such a diagnosis.
She said that, especially in the African-American community, life can be difficult for those afflicted with mental and behavioral health issues.
Inspired by her father, who was an entrepreneur, she said she has found a way to combine her life experience with her inherent drive to embark on a career both she and her 8-year-old son can be proud of.
"He's old enough now to where he can understand why mommy has to work so much."
Just as her life was geared toward success, Ms. Dowell said there are combinations of hereditary and environmental causes that can negatively impact a person's mental health.
A lack of public knowledge and cultural awareness can lead to the sick being marginalized, and in some cases punished for behaviors that are symptoms of an illness rather than a disregard for laws, rules and societal norms.
All of the children enrolled in the Goldsboro-based center have a clinical diagnosis of some kind, mostly ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder).
Often these students have a difficult time identifying the triggers that lead to disruptive behavior, and respond to authority with contempt and disrespect -- or are perceived as doing so because they lack the social and communication skills other children their age might more readily exhibit.
Positive Influences is a licensed mental health services provider that must adhere strictly to state guidelines.
Staff are required to be vetted and qualifications have to be established before they can begin to work with children. A clinical psychologist and a medical doctor are contracted to ensure safe and proper practices are followed and to handle any medication that is prescribed and administered.
Goldsboro site manager and day treatment provider Aschia McNair is a certified social worker with bachelor's and master's degrees in her field.
"I love my job, but it is difficult," she said. "I'm a crybaby sometimes because you learn to love these children as your own."
Ms. McNair is a Goldsboro native and said she has seen the community she grew up in fall into decline.
She is among the few of her generation who left to pursue an education, then decided to return to work in Goldsboro and give back to the community.
Crime and poverty have overtaken areas of the city that were common to her as a child.
She was raised by her grandmother in what an area of Goldsboro formerly known as Webtown.
Members of her graduating high school class told her at a recent 20-year high school reunion that they did not feel comfortable raising their children in the same place they grew up.
She worries about the home environment that some of the children in her program, ages 6 to 17, have to endure -- a culture where gangs and drugs rule, failure is almost expected and success is made to seem improbable, if not impossible.
"Out in the community it's frowned upon to be an achiever, they don't want to be singled out for having goals, good grades or being involved in their community," Ms. McNair said.
It's a culture that Positive Influences is working to change, partnering with children, parents and schools to create a network -- an umbrella of support.
Often, Ms. McNair said, teachers and parents find themselves working to correct behaviors taught outside the home and beyond the reach of school grounds.
"It's almost as if we are working backwards," she said.
The children she counsels and conducts workshops with have demonstrated behavioral issues either at school or in the home. Many of them have been expelled or suspended numerous times.
The goal of Positive Influences, she explained, is to teach the children positive and effective communication skills, anger management and identification tools to help them learn to recognize when they are losing their cool or in a situation that might lead to misbehavior.
In addition to classroom instruction, tutoring and group therapy sessions that help the kids with conflict resolution and social interaction, there also are person-centered plans made to adhere to each individuals needs.
"The PCPs are used to measure each child's success, track goals as they are met and to help when speaking with the families about their child's progress."
The facility looks more like a pre-school than a treatment facility. There are arts and crafts stations and a library of children's books.
A computer lab is available to the children if they are meeting behavioral and academic requirements. And there are lots of games and interactive workshops conducted.
On one recent day, "Intro to Anger" was the focus.
A group of about 10 children sat opposite one another on a stage platform in the rear of the room and took turns reading allowed from a previously prepared sheet of paper. On the paper they answered questions about times when they might have been embarrassed or grown angry.
The children were coached on how to effectively communicate in a group and had to answer questions about the other children's responses. They were asked to pay attention, raise their hands before speaking and to speak clearly while making eye contact.
Some of the children struggled with posture and attentiveness, demonstrating the symptoms of their respective illnesses that separate them from other kids who simply misbehave for attention or for other reasons.
More than a typical after-school program, the children also take field trips and enjoy learning experiences broader than the borders of Goldsboro.
The group recently toured Shaw University and has taken trips to science and art museums.
Ms. Dowell told of one student who expressed aspirations of becoming an astronaut. One of the medical doctors arranged to have the child's family bring him to Kinston.
"The doctor picked him up in Kinston and took him to the NASA facility at Jacksonville."
Not only are the children encouraged to dream, but they are shown that their dreams are attainable if they first come to believe them then work to achieve them, she said.
Positive reinforcement is important, Ms. Dowell and Ms. McNair agreed.
When the children were on stage and read aloud their responses to a question about whom they loved, many said their parents, Jesus and God.
"Ms. McNair," proclaimed one little girl.
The social worker-slash-teacher-slash-mentor was visibly moved.
"Ms. McNair loves you all, too. She loves you more than rainbows," she said.