Learning to Solve Problems Together
“Kids arrive scared and angry. They’ve been through a lot. We listen without judgment to understand their perspective. When kids start feeling safe to come and talk to us about what they are experiencing, you see progress.”
~ Melvyn Tate, Coordinator, Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Child & Family Center
A safe space to grow, listen and learn
At age nine, Darnell had several challenges to work through when he came to the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Child & Family Center, our residential treatment center for children ages 7-14 overcoming abuse, neglect or other traumas. Darnell needed support with understanding and expressing his emotions and learning to believe in himself and trust others. Melvyn Tate has worked at Rice for 43 years and he played a major role in helping Darnell heal.
“While Darnell attended our school, I became a safe person to talk to. He’d leave class angry and visit me,” remembers Melvyn. “Darnell had difficulty sharing his feelings when he was upset, so I’d remind him to breathe. Once Darnell felt calm, we’d do some collaborative problem-solving.”
“Collaborative problem-solving” is a cornerstone of the Rice program. “We help kids become more self-aware and learn skills to have more agency over their lives,” says Melvyn. “I’d ask Darnell, ‘What’s bothering you? How can you communicate what you’re feeling? What do YOU want to happen next?’ Darnell would take strategies he’d identified back to his teacher and listen to her concerns. Then they’d overcome that hurdle as a team.”
Over the decades, Melvyn has had countless experiences connecting with foster youth like Darnell, serving as a guide and mentor while they process traumas from the past and learn to advocate for what they need to succeed. A willingness to listen and learn formed the foundation of each relationship, explains Melvyn. “We don’t assume why a problem might be happening. We ask questions and then we hear their perspective and feelings. That’s when kids start opening up and then we’re able to figure out where they’re getting stuck and develop strategies together for working through those specific issues.”
Once a child knows how to share what they are struggling with and express where they need support, it becomes easier for them to cope with emotions and find alternatives for managing frustrations. Melvyn says that it is all about building new pathways and connections in the brain. “The end game is for kids to be able to sit down and talk with people in their everyday lives to solve problems. If you’re able to teach a kid that skill, they have a tool they can use forever.”
Solutions for children and families
When possible, Rice reunites children with their families, where they belong. “We teach families and caregivers the same collaborative problem-solving skills so they can understand their child’s experience, and work together to create a safe, supportive home environment,” says Melvyn. “Adults often assume why kids are doing something and half the time they get it wrong. With practice, the whole family can unpack what’s going on and brainstorm ideas for getting through it together.”
At age 11, Darnell returned home with his grandmother. Melvyn remembers that the transition was difficult for him at first. As it got closer to his last day at the Rice Center, Darnell once again came to Melvyn’s office for a chat about what was bothering him.
“Darnell worried about not having me to problem solve with. I told him, ‘This new chapter will be hard, but the strength is inside you already. You haven’t needed me for a long time.’ He had that potential in him from the start.”
Help us keep this vital work going
Despite the need for residential services for foster youth with complex problems, programs like Rice are rapidly disappearing in Illinois. In fact, Rice is one of just two centers in Illinois that support young children with severe mental health and behavioral issues, and it is the only center of its kind in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. We’re invested in maintaining this unique resource, which provides a vital bridge for kids to connect again with their communities.
Donors play an important part in Rice staff being able to do their work effectively. Through their generosity, we’re able to evolve and expand our services to tackle the mounting challenges families face in their lives, especially in Black and Brown communities. Click here to learn more about our programming at Rice.