competent youth care worker

September is National Suicide Prevention Month

Written by: Tammy Hopper, Chief Strategic Initiatives Officer, National Safe Place Network & RHYTTAC

Although I had learned about suicide and had even been a peer educator in high school, I had not personally been impacted by a completed act until my freshman year in college. I was serving as a resident advisor and was called into the head resident counselor’s office to hear the news. The boyfriend of a friend of mine had shot himself in the woods on campus. I was sad for my friend, angry at the young man and confused about what had happened. I had been trained to look for signs. Everyone had seen this young man many times and although we knew he had a temper, it always seemed to be directed at others. Like the other individuals involved, we waded through the rivers of grief and found that the depth of the waters differed from person to person. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression and anger were common and yet, like most moving waters – the rivers flowed and we found renewed energy to continue our life journeys – even though his was complete.

In later years I was impacted by the suicide of a young transitional living program participant. As a supervisor, I would sometimes be called into action when a staff person was sick. One Sunday I was covering the program and this young man indicated he was hungry. He was the only one in the building so I decided to make pancakes. I can still see his face and remember how moved I was when he gave me a hug and expressed sincere gratitude that I had made this small gesture for no other reason than to be kind to him. He talked about his life and how he always felt like a burden to others and how he wanted things to be different. He was able to verbalize his desire for close relationships while confirming his doubt that these same relationships could last. Six months later, he completed suicide on a different Sunday morning. He asked that there be no service as no one would mourn him “for real.” He was wrong – I cried. The staff cried. Volunteers cried.  Like the other individuals involved, our tears joined in the rivers of grief and we found that the depth of the waters differed from person to person. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression and anger were common and yet, like most moving waters – the rivers flowed and we found renewed energy to continue our life journeys – even though his was complete.

Most recently, my nephew called to say that my sister attempted to take her own life. She was in the hospital and although she indicated that her overdose on pain medication was an accident – no one in the family overlooked the obvious. She was still with us and we could share our love, appreciation and support. Relief was one side of our family coin and sadness the other. My sister has been surviving with multiple sclerosis for more than 25 years. She is in constant and considerable pain. She cannot breathe and it is difficult and close to impossible for her to move. She says she is tired. She says she is done. She says her faith tells her that there is something next. Regardless of whether she intended to complete suicide or not, the result of the potential loss is frightening. We all responded with concern, sought reassurances and then continued in our individual boats down the rivers of grief and found that the depth of the waters differed from person to person. Feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression and anger were common and yet, like most moving waters – the rivers flowed and we found renewed energy to continue our life journeys – even though we do not know when hers will be complete.

I know very few people who have not been impacted by suicide. Internal fleeting thoughts;  personal attempts; friend or family losses; media exposure – all demonstrate to us that to think about this life fully will also involve recognizing the inevitable nature of death. In trainings and consultations we discuss how suicide is different from any other form of loss. The intentionality of the act and the self-directed nature of the decision make it very difficult to understand, talk about or find ways to respond to in healthy ways.

However, the conversations about suicide should be happening at many levels – familial, organizational, community – and these conversations should be happening often. Knowing the warning signs and seeking help for the individuals is critical. It is better to breach a sensitive subject and have the person be alive even if they are angry.

People who complete suicide may exhibit one or more warning signs. The more warning signs, the greater the risk. Example warning signs include:

  • Feeling trapped
  • Talk about killing themselves
  • Stating of implying that he or she has no reason to live
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Referencing unbearable pain
  • Feeling as if there are no answers or no way out of situations
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Acting recklessly
  • Withdrawing from activities or friends
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Aggression or violence
  • Saying goodbye
  • Depression
  • Loss of interests in hobbies or other activities
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Unexpected euphoria or happiness

As we examine this topic during National Suicide Prevention Month, we at National Safe Place Network encourage you to get involved at whatever level makes sense for you.


The loss of life is a loss of potential. Possibility evaporates and is replaced with thoughts of what could have been. If you or someone your know is thinking about suicide, please seek help. National Safe Place Network envisions a world in which all youth are safe. Thank you for your efforts to make this vision a reality.

Part Three of our “Brain Development” Series: Creating a Brain-Based Environment for Youth

By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member

Adolescence is defined as the transition from childhood to adulthood and encompasses the broad developmental tasks of establishing a unique identity and developing one’s own autonomy and independence. Brain development also undergoes unique changes during adolescence that can explain many behaviors specific to this developmental period.

Brain development continues well into the 20’s and the last area to develop is the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher cognitive and emotional functioning. Prefrontal cortex development is largely influenced by experience and this allows us to directly impact adolescent brain development.

After a preadolescent cellular growth spurt in the brain, a pruning process begins in adolescence. The adolescent loses approximately three percent of gray matter in the prefrontal lobes. This pruning works on a “use it or lose it” principle so it is important to repeatedly expose young people to the skills and knowledge needed to become successful adults. Repeated use and exposure will strengthen the neural connections that support these skills so they are not lost during the pruning process.

The speed and efficiency of neural communication is determined by neural sensitivity known as long-term potentiation. Under normal situations, long-term potentiation is highest during adolescence. However, adolescents face many factors that can inhibit long-term potentiation.  Things like alcohol and substance use, chronic stress, sleep deprivation, and stimulants interfere with long-term potentiation and slow neural communication. We can help teens minimize exposure to these risk factors through education.

Due to the pattern of brain development, teenagers have greater difficulty reading the emotions of others, a function of the prefrontal lobes, and experience emotions at greater intensity than adults due to a reactive limbic system. We can help develop the neural pathways between the limbic center and prefrontal lobes by helping teens examine and identify emotions (their own and of others) and helping them learn to “put a brake” on their emotions and stop and think before reacting. Activities such as “emotion charades” allows teens the opportunity to both recognize and express emotions.

Research now demonstrates a significant link between exercise and brain functioning and development. Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen level in the brain and this is necessary for optimal cellular growth and function. Exercise also impacts neurotransmitter levels in the brain that can serve to help teens better regulate emotional control.

Knowledge is power and teens should be educated about how the choices that they make during adolescence can have lifelong impacts.

This blog is the final post in a three-part series on adolescent brain development. Click on the links below to read parts one and two:

Part One of our “Brain Development” Series: General Brain Development

Part Two of our “Brain Development” Series: The Brain and Crisis Situations

Back to School

Written by: Shauna Stubbs, RHYTTAC Principal Investigator, National Safe Place Network

Some young people approach the beginning of a new school year with excitement and anticipation.  Perhaps they see this as a fresh start – an opportunity to experiment with identity development.  Maybe they have a sense of confidence from previous experience that their desirable position in the social hierarchy of school is secure.  Some could be finely tuned toward academic pursuits, eager to continue learning with the intention to avoid all the drama.

Others experience this ritual differently.  School can be merciless.  Many of our youth find themselves at higher risk than their peers for being bullied; having learning difficulties, substance abuse and mental health issues; and insecurity of resources to meet their basic needs.

On the other hand, school can be a strong protective factor for the young people whom we serve.  Every year a student continues to attend school after 7th grade decreases risk of teen pregnancy, incarceration, and other significant stumbling blocks.  And youth who are engaged in extra-curricular activities tend to improve their self esteem and develop positive social relationships.

So how can we help young people get the most benefit from school with the least risk of social trauma?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).  While SEL curricula are often designed for school implementation, there are opportunities to adapt these life skills training modules for use in RHY groups.  One example of an SEL life skill is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of being present and observing our experience while being aware that human beings are greater than our feelings, thoughts, and impulses.  Developing mindfulness is also a strategy in trauma-informed care.

Positive Youth Development (PYD).  The educational equivalent of what we know as PYD is Student-Centered Learning or Learner-Centered Education.  This approach challenges young people to learn more than content.  Students are encouraged to develop learning, critical thinking and problem-solving skills by practicing them.  Youth make choices about focus areas that align with their interests.  There are a number of ways this model can be implemented in schools to transform the educational environment, but individual youth in our care can benefit from opportunities to participate in decision making.  If we remember that every question is an opportunity to practice development, RHY staff can offer support to youth in seeking their own answers.

Reviewing Lessons Learned.  As young people in RHY programs are preparing to start a new school year, a life skills group could include discussions about previous successes, challenges or disappointments at school.  With supportive guidance, youth can consider possible alternatives and outcomes and determine how they might handle that situation differently if it happened again.  Young people in such a discussion can reality test their options with peers and learn from each other’s experience.

Providing Feedback.  According to Frank Kros, President of the Upside Down Organization (UDO) and evidence-informed child advocate, feedback for youth that is most likely to build self-efficacy and self-esteem focuses on three domains: effort, strategy, and perseverance.  Rather than telling young people they are smart, help them evaluate how pleasing or disappointing results were related to how hard they worked; what approach they used to read, study, take notes, etc.; and/or how persistent they were in overcoming obstacles and challenges.

Collaboration.  Develop partnerships with schools and other service providers in your communities.  Find ways to cooperate in building a local environment that fosters opportunity and supports learning.  Work together to advocate for effective education policy at the city, county, school board, state and federal levels.

Follow these links to school-related resources available from National Safe Place Network:

RHYTTAC McKinney-Vento and RHYA Programs: Partners for Student Success

NSPN The ABCs of Bullying (available through DOT for members with Training Center access)

Follow the links below for additional resources:

Recommended Reading for Youth:

Part Two of our “Brain Development” Series: The Brain and Crisis Situations

By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member

What determines the individual responses in times of crisis? Why do some freeze and become incapable of responding while others seem to thrive and rise to the challenge in the face of threat? We can look to genetics and a person’s upbringing to determine the neural pathways established in the brain that dictate the varied ranges of response to crises.

In the center of the brain and seated in the limbic system lies a small structure known as the amygdala. The amygdala houses fearful or threatening memories and uses this information to access incoming information to determine potential threats and initiate the “fight or flight” response required to deal with those threats. While information from the amygdala can be sent to the prefrontal lobe for higher cognitive and emotional assessment, it is important to understand that the amygdala is designed to respond immediately to ensure survival.

Genetics will determine the initial sensitivity and response rate of the amygdala. Some individuals are prone to quick emotional responses due to the innate sensitivity of amygdala responsiveness influenced by levels of neurotransmitters and cellular structure.  Early upbringing can either enhance or moderate this heightened sensitivity.

Early environment is crucial to the cellular development and connectivity of the amygdala because newborns enter the world unable to regulate their emotional responses.  When responsive caregivers immediately respond to meet the needs of their newborn, they help establish neural pathways in the brain that allow the infant to begin to self-regulate and self-sooth in times of distress. Infants who have caregivers that are unresponsive lack the opportunity to establish these pathways for self-regulation.  When caregivers are abusive, infants miss opportunities to self-regulate and the initial responsiveness of the amygdala is increased to respond to the threat. Neglectful and abusive environments heighten emotional responses and reactivity and all new information is processed against those threatening memories. An overactive amygdala results in increased anxiety, fear, distrust and mood disorders.

These early patterns generally persist throughout life. While intervention can help moderate the emotional response and change behavioral patterns, in times of crises or in unfamiliar situations we tend to revert to earlier patterns. Certain environmental features or characteristics and mannerisms of others can trigger old fearful memories and initiate the crisis response. Understanding how a person’s stress response was established can help predict their future behavior in crisis situations.

This blog post is the second in a three-part series on brain development. Click here to read the first blog, “General Brain Development.” Stay tuned for the final blog post on brain development!

Part One of our “Brain Development” Series: General Brain Development

By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member

The human brain is a beautiful thing. Nothing matches a healthy brain in efficient, creative, and effective functioning. Normal brain development follows predictable patterns mirroring the mastery of developmental skills at different stages of life. It is important to understand, however, that brain development is strongly influenced by environment. An enriched, supportive environment facilitates healthy brain development; a deprived, harmful, or stressful environment greatly inhibits normal brain development.

There are two developmental periods during which brain growth and development is unparalleled: birth – toddlerhood and pre-adolescence. During both of these stages, there is a tremendous increase in brain matter, particularly in neural connections, or synapses, that allow the brain cells to communicate. This overabundance of brain matter is necessary to accommodate the significant learning that occurs during these periods.

Also common to both periods of brain development is the process called pruning. Neural pruning rids the brain of unused synapses to promote more efficient processing. Again, pruning is highly dependent upon the environment and individual experiences. Exposure to new skills and learning opportunities is crucial during these times.

There are also differences in the brain development of infancy / toddlerhood and adolescence and these differences reflect the developmental tasks that are key to each stage. Much of brain development in the earlier years is inhibitory; neural communication in the brain blocks brain activity in certain areas as the child learns to control their own bodies, emotions, and actions.  Brain growth in adolescence is excitatory; this is particularly true for the limbic system, the area of the brain integral to learning, reward, and emotions.

Key to understanding much of adolescent behavior is the knowledge that the limbic system develops and is “primed to respond” much sooner than the prefrontal cortex, the area controlling higher cognitive processes and higher emotional control. Due to this uneven growth pattern, adolescents experience heightened emotions, have more difficulty reading emotions and controlling their own emotions, and engage in thrill-seeking behavior at much greater extent than adults.

Because development of the prefrontal cortex is reliant upon experience, adults can create environments to facilitate this development. Learning opportunities, positive role modeling, adequate rest, diet, and exercise, effective coping skills and reduced exposure to risks factors such as alcohol, drugs, and stress, are all key components to healthy brain development. It is within our power to create experiences for youth that will allow them to maximize the most powerful tool at their disposal, the human brain.

This blog post is the first in a three-part series on brain development. Stay tuned for the next two blog posts on brain development!

NSPN and the Academy for Competent Youth Work Team Up to Help Advance the Youth Services Field

In honor of 2015 International Child and Youth Care Workers’ Week last week (May 3-9), NSPN is pleased to announce a partnership with the Academy for Competent Youth Work to provide Child and Youth Care certification training. The Academy for Competent Youth Work is effectively transforming the practice of child and youth care by focusing on these core goals: 1) Prepare a competent international youth care workforce; 2) Help youth care organizations develop and implement research-based best practices; 3) Advocate for quality services for children, youth and families; and 4) Advocate on behalf of Child and Youth Care Practitioners. NSPN is proud to be the exclusive national partner with the Academy for Competent Youth Work for complete access to training. This partnership provides the opportunity for NSPN to offer this certification training: “Child and Youth Care Foundations Course” and certification exam. Participants may pursue certification at the Basic and Associate levels (national certification) or the Professional level (international certification).

There are many benefits to becoming a certified youth care worker:

  • Receive the benefits of high-quality, cost-effective training that builds on individual experiences of child and youth workers.
  • Become part of a competent, certified group of child and youth care workers advancing the youth services field.
  • Individuals with varying levels of experience are welcome.
  • Discounted course registration fees available for NSPN members and licensed Safe Place agencies. Course registration is free for FYSB-funded RHY grantee agencies.

The CYC: Foundations Course is eight 5-hour modules that include the following topics:

  • Introduction to Professional CYC Practice
  • Professional Ethics and Regulation
  • Brain-based Guidance Techniques
  • Assessment and Documentation
  • Communication
  • Developmentally Based Programming
  • Relationship Development
  • Group Work
  • Activity Development and Leadership
  • Supervising Children and Youth
  • Cultural Diversity

Contact us for additional information about how you can become a Certified Youth Care Worker – or 502.635.3660.