Trained as a cross-cultural counselor and psychotherapist, Kargman Assistant Professor Michael Nakkula studies how environmental and psychosocial factors interact to create varying developmental pathways for working-class and low-income youth. He has co-founded several prevention programs, including Project IF: Inventing the Future, a collaborative partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital and the local business community, which places Harvard students in mentoring, tutoring, and counseling relationships with youth in public schools and subsidized housing developments, and studies the impact of these approaches for potential adoption in other settings.
Q: Why does Project IF concentrate on the recognition and invention of new possibilities for children and adolescents rather than the reduction of their old problems?
A: Through years of counseling work with urban middle and high school students, it became clear to me that students referred for counseling services often shared a common characteristic: they had become identified by others and ultimately themselves based on their struggles or limitations rather than their successes and strengths. In fact, these students and the people who referred themteachers, parents, even themselvesknew much more about what was wrong with them than what they had or could accomplish. I began to think about this issue along the lines of basic behavioral conditioning, which suggests that growth occurs most readily through the identification and reinforcement of that which you want to help growtalents and strengths, for examplerather than by suppressing or reducing problems or that which you want to get rid of.
It's certainly important to treat and prevent problems, but if the primary focus is on the problem, it's difficult to identify and nurture the strengths. Working from this basic premise, I began to think of my work in terms of possibility development rather than problem treatment or prevention. Although both are important, the emphasis is what's critical. In Project IF, we emphasize the development of possibility.
Q: How might university involvement in the local community benefit children and youths from low-income backgrounds? Can you name possible short- and long-term effects of such involvement on the community?
A: Project IF (Inventing the Future) takes its name from the assumption that the future is not readily available to receive passively, but that it must be discovered and constructed actively. While this is commonsensical, many children from low-income backgrounds have limited access to the most basic information and support needed to explore options outside of their immediate surroundings. For them, inventing a future that they would find gratifying and economically supportive requires connection with opportunity structures existing in the larger environment.
Obviously, universities, and university students who can serve as guides or models, are critical to the opportunity structure for young people. Poor and low-income youths often have few models within their families or neighborhoods to help expose them to the rules of the game for education and career development. Having grown up as a low-income youngster myself, I was fortunate to have one uncle who went on to college. That made all the difference in the world for me. But most of my friends didn't have such influences and the outcomes for them were very different. So I've learned the importance of the university's impact both through my professional work and personal experience. In the greater Boston area, where there are so many universities, it's critical that this essential resource become a real part of the world for the local youths rather than an abstract entity that remains foreign and intangible.
Q: How does your research on adolescent negotiation in the U.S. and Argentina relate to the principal goals of Project IF?
A: Negotiation is obviously a fundamental tool for getting what one wants and needs, so in that sense it is very much related to "inventing the future." I am interested in studying negotiation training for youths as a means of conflict resolution and violence prevention because it is rooted in a strength-based model rather than a deficit-based approach. Negotiation is a skill designed to help people get what they want and need from life, rather than a strategy strictly utilized to resolve problems. In addition, it can be taught to all youths, not just those who get into fights or are designated as needing an intervention.
The Program for Young Negotiators, which we've studied here in the U.S. and in Argentina, presents negotiation as a tool used in business, law, and everyday life, in addition to being essential to resolving conflict. In today's political climate, with war featured daily as a potential means of resolving differences, negotiation is a hotly debated topic, not only for inventing the future, but also for preserving it.
Q: Can you explain the developmental stages that are important for adolescents who are learning to negotiate more effectively? What are the most important characteristics of each of these stages?
A: Although we (the Project IF research team) don't frame our negotiation work strictly in terms of stages, we do draw from Bob Selman's notion of "Interpersonal Negotiation Strategies." From that perspective, we see two fairly clear stages or levels of negotiation growth that pretty much mirror findings from his research on interpersonal negotiation.
At the first level, we find students who learn negotiation skills and use them primarily in a self-serving way. That is, they learn the power of being persuasive through the use of clear and effective communication skills, and they apply that newly discovered knowledge to the practice of getting what they want from others with little regard for the other person's wants or needs. We hear plenty of examples of middle-school students negotiating with their parents for larger allowances and later curfewsthe stories have come from both students and parents. While this self-centered practice of negotiation is an improvement over yelling, arguing, and fighting on one hand, or withdrawing on the other, its benefits tend to be fairly limited in the long run.
At the next level of negotiation, we see the more classic understanding and application of negotiation skills. We hear stories about students genuinely trying to understand where the other person is coming from, what they want and need, and we hear attempts to balance that understanding with one's own interests. Selman calls this the coordination of social perspectives.
Through negotiation training, we find that many students do learn to coordinate the wants and needs of self and others, and to negotiate from that perspective. This is what the negotiation gurus Roger Fisher and Bill Ury have termed "win-win" negotiating. At the core of this model is the assumption that long-term success in negotiation relationships requires benefits for both or all sides involved.
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