It’s far from the most enjoyable 90 minutes of television you’ll ever see. But once you start watching “The Kids We Lose” Thursday night at 10 on Maine Public, you’ll have a hard time looking away.

There’s little Lucas, who struggles in preschool and, on the day of his kindergarten screening, locks his future teacher out of the classroom.

And Oliver, who struggles with dyslexia, gets suspended 15 times from kindergarten – that’s right, kindergarten – and is a frequent visitor to his school’s seclusion room.

“They call it the calm-down room,” Oliver says. “But I call it the opposite of that.” To him, it’s the “mad-up room” because “it makes me madder.”

And there’s Eric, who once tried to escape as he was being pushed into his school’s seclusion room. The door closed on his arm, fracturing his wrist.

The film is a joint effort by Lone Wolf Media of South Portland and Lives in the Balance, a nonprofit organization founded by Ross Greene, Ph.D, an internationally renowned clinical child psychologist.

Greene, who lives in Portland, spent 20 years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He’s written four books on helping kids who teeter between successful futures and life in the breakdown lane: “The Explosive Child,” “Lost at School,” “Lost & Found” and “Raising Human Beings.”

Here in Maine, Greene has worked over the years with Maine’s juvenile justice system and a growing number of school districts, all interested in taking a new look at an age-old problem.

The theme that runs through all of Greene’s work: Far too often, in dealing with what we pejoratively describe as “problem kids” in our schools, we as a society are doing it all wrong.

In fact, more often than not, we’re making things worse.

The film, written and directed by Lisa Wolfinger, tells the stories of nine children and one adult – a few from Maine, the rest from other parts of the country.

They all came to their various school systems hamstrung by learning disorders and behavioral challenges. That, in turn, led to physical restraint by teachers, in-school handcuffing by uniformed police officers, seclusion in small rooms that look a lot like solitary confinement, and suspensions and expulsions that make the problem go away without doing anything to solve it.

“There are places that won’t and don’t do that stuff because they know it’s counterproductive,” Greene said in an interview on Tuesday. “And there are places that do a whole bunch of that stuff because they either don’t yet know it’s counterproductive or they don’t know what to do instead.”

That’s where Lives in the Balance comes in. It’s philosophy, based on Greene’s three decades dealing with challenging kids: It’s not about what these children want or don’t want to do. It’s about what they can or cannot do. It’s not about a lack of motivation. It’s about a lack of skills.

In other words, a kid doesn’t fly off the handle simply because he or she “doesn’t wanna” to do a math problem or write an essay. More often than not, it’s because something – a learning disorder, an emotional problem, difficulty with other kids – is getting in the way of accomplishing the task at hand.

Through it all, as educators rack their brains trying to identify the problem, they often neglect to ask the one person most capable of solving the puzzle: the struggling child.

“We’ve got to ask,” Greene said. “They’re the ones who know; they’re the ones we’ve got to ask.”

Enter Greene’s model of “Collaborative & Proactive Solutions,” or CPS. By addressing the child’s challenges before all hell breaks loose, it first sends an important signal to the child that someone is listening and, second, enables the child and the educator to put their heads together and overcome the impediment.

“The Kids We Lose,” awarded best feature documentary at the 2018 New Hampshire Film Festival, starkly contrasts ignoring a child’s particular needs until it is too late with meeting the child “upstream,” as Green puts it, before things get out of control.

In one scene captured on a cellphone, a teacher screams at the top of his lungs, inches away from a student’s face, demanding that he “get out of my classroom!”

The aim, Greene stressed, is not to vilify teachers who lose their cool.

“I think the important point is there is plenty of empathy to go around here,” he said.  “If you’re a teacher and we’ve loaded you up with a bunch of kids with IEPs (individualized education plans) and a bunch with behavioral challenges who may or may not have an IEP, and we overcrowd your classroom and we don’t give you the support you need, and we don’t give you the training that you need, then we’ve got to empathize with that teacher too.”

Conversely, in another scene, Nina D’Aran, principal of the Central School in South Berwick, sits on a mat in a quiet classroom with a young boy and gently gets him to open up about why he raises his hand sometimes and not others. She waits patiently as he rolls around, wraps himself in a blanket, gets up and wanders and then, out of nowhere, tells her, “I can’t get the answers right.”

Later, speaking to the camera, D’Aran says, “Instead of running around putting out fires, you’re spending time with kids, solving problems when they’re able to do so.  Not in the moment, not when they’re having a really hard time, but committing to working with children when they are at a place (where) they can listen … they can use their voice … they can be a huge part of the problem-solving process.”

It looks time consuming, especially for a busy principal. But in the long run, Greene said, it isn’t.

“Think about the amount of time principals spend with that long line of kids outside their office. Time after time after time, it’s the same 10, 20, 30 kids in every building who are in that line and they are often in it perpetually,” he said. “When we replace the amount of time we are spending on them doing the wrong thing and spend time with them doing the right thing, you actually significantly reduce the amount of time.”

The same goes for money. Rather than cost more, Moore said, CPS actually saves taxpayer dollars in the long run by keeping kids in the local school system, not shipping them off to an expensive alternative school “because the kid has blown out of the general ed setting.”

Another Maine educator who appears in the film is Ryan Gleason, principal at Yarmouth Elementary School. He’s working to incorporate the CPS model in Yarmouth, as he did previously at schools in Durham and Falmouth.

In an interview Wednesday, Gleason said he’s been guided for much of the past decade by the cornerstone of CPS: Kids do well if they can. Not kids do well if they “want to.”

“That’s a fundamental shift, right there,” Gleason said. “Instead of focusing on the behavior the kids are exhibiting, we go with the mindset that if the kid could do well, they would do well.”

Following tonight’s broadcast, “The Kids We Lose” will air again on Maine Public Saturday at 11 a.m. After that, it will remain available via online streaming.

Fair warning, whether it’s a sobbing young child in handcuffs or two parents staring at each other across the kitchen table with tears in their eyes, you’re not going to like everything you see.

But you just might learn how to do something about it.

 

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