Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for October, 2006

Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In

Posted by nliakos on October 22, 2006

by Stephen Nowicki, Jr., Ph.D. and Marshall P. Duke, Ph.D. Peachtree 1992

The subtitle of this book tells us that the authors “decipher the hidden dimensions of social rejection”. I borrowed it from my local library system after a hold of perhaps six months; from the look of its tattered cover, a lot of people are anxious to discover these hidden dimensions.

I found the book surprising because most of what it talks about is the same stuff that ESL teachers, international student advisers, and Peace Corps volunteers know by heart: nonverbal communication (we all know that its messages outweigh the verbal messages we send when we speak), including proxemics (the cultural rules for using space and touching others), customs which govern the use of time, gestures and facial expressions. The ESL teachers also know about the importance of stress and intonation in spoken language; add to this vocal tone, loudness, and intensity. (It was no surprise to find Edward Hall’s 1966 classic The Hidden Dimension in the list of references at the end.) Tacked on at the end of the list is something the authors call “objectics or style of dress,” including body odor (another familiar problem area in some ESL classes, because what smells bad differs from culture to culture; Americans tend to try to mask all natural body odor.).

So none of what I was reading about was new for me; what was new was the idea that people (here, specifically children) growing up within a particular culture may for some reason fail to absorb the unwritten rules. It isn’t until the end of the book that Nowicki and Marshall hypothesize three reasons for this lack of absorption: lack of exposure to appropriate experiences, emotional problems, or brain dysfunction (p. 138) They do not go into much detail.

The idea that some people unknowingly break the rules of nonverbal behavior and are socially stigmatized for it is a very interesting one. It seems very likely that such behavior does make others uncomfortable and possible that their discomfort results in avoidance and even ostracization of the hapless rule-breaker. However, the idea that simply making such children aware of the rules and practicing “appropriate” behaviors can cure the problem seems hopelessly optimistic to me. It might work as well with those children whose simple lack of exposure to nonverbal norms causes their “dyssemia” (as the authors name the condition they are describing) as it does with the people of other cultures that we find in our ESL classes; but I can’t see how it would be effective with children whose dyssemia is caused by either brain dysfunction or emotional disabilities.

The authors provide plenty of exercises and activities both to screen children for dyssemia and to alleviate it, so perhaps I should not criticize their approach without having tried out their methods. Nevertheless, it seems too facile. Besides, many of their suggestions are extremely time-consuming (e.g., create a dictionary–or a set of flashcards– of facial expressions or postures, using pictures cut from magazines or photographs you take yourself).

At the very end of the book, the authors throw in a paragraph on medication, suggesting that if hyperactivity or ADD are also involved, then stimulant drugs may be tried after consulting “a knowledgeable physician”. I found this advice to be gratuitous; moreover, it has nothing to do with the subject they are writing about. Perhaps in 1992 one could not publish a book on child behavior problems without recommending these drugs. They may not have foreseen the North American problem of overdiagnosis of ADHD and the abuse of these medications.

A review I read of the book also criticizes Nowicki and Marshall for making claims which are not backed up by research. They do mention one study they conducted on 1,000 children, but otherwise, most of the support they provide is anecdotal.

They have produced a test for assessing dyssemia: the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy or DANVA. At the time of publication, several of the subtests had not yet been validated, but by now they presumably have been.

In sum, an interesting and different approach to the problem of social rejection, but one which seems to say that understanding the problem and somehow teaching the rules will make the problem go away. I take that part with a grain of salt.

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