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October 30, 2000

Marshall Duke knows What Works with kids

By Keely Solomon

Some things you can learn from books; others you just know from experience. Marshall Duke, Candler Professor of Psychology, has recently brought these two forms of knowledge together by organizing more than 1,000 years of child-rearing wisdom into a book for parents and teachers.

What Works With Children: Wisdom and Reflections from People Who Have Devoted Their Careers to Kids is coedited by Duke and his wife, learning disabilities specialist Sara Duke. The inspiration for the book was The Last Lecture Series at Emory, in which professors are asked to imagine that they are delivering the last lecture of their lives.

In the tradition of the Last Lecture, the Dukes asked teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, coaches, ministers and rabbis: “If you had one more chance to talk to parents and tell them what you know about kids, what wisdom would you pass on?” The result is a collection of 40 essays by professionals who have worked with children for at least 25 years.

Duke has had plenty of opportunities to gather his own wisdom as a father of three, grandfather of five and a career as a clinical child psychologist. Together with Steven Nowicki, Candler Professor of Psychology, Duke has spent more than 30 years working with children who have problems with nonverbal language skills.

Duke and Nowicki describe these children as “dyssemic.” They are the nonverbal counterpart to children with verbal language problems such as dyslexia. Children with dyssemia often have problems with things such as standing too close, touching inappropriately or use of inappropriate vocal tones or volume. As a result, they frequently experience socialization difficulties.

Duke said 90 percent of the interpersonal impact of a person comes across nonverbally, and that is why nonverbal communication has such an impact on social relationships.

“We tend to focus on words and writing, and we don’t think so much about the impact of the nonverbal, but it’s very, very strong,” he said.

Traditionally, educators are trained to identify and help children with verbal language difficulties, but many people are reluctant to tell someone they are talking too loud or standing too close.

Consequently, many dyssemic children—and adults—remain unaware of the source of their social difficulties.

Duke and Nowicki have written two books and, together with educator Elizabeth Martin, developed a set of activities that help parents and teachers assess and improve nonverbal skills in children. Duke emphasizes that most of these remediation techniques are simple, informal and can be worked on at home or school.

“This is not an illness,” Duke said. “It’s not something you run to the psychiatrist about. It’s an educational experience, and parents and teachers can work with it.”

The techniques were recently put to the test at Ballard High School in Louisville, Ky. Tenth-graders identified as being “at risk” for dropping out were asked to enter a program that focused on improving interpersonal skills, with special emphasis on nonverbal language.

Ninety-eight percent of the “at risk” students who entered the program graduated from high school, compared to only 38 percent of “at risk” students who did not enter the program and 80 percent of students not considered at risk for dropping out.

“Can we say it was just the nonverbal language?” Duke said. “No, I wouldn’t be so silly as to say that. But it was one of a group of factors that contributed to these kids feeling more comfortable, staying in school, graduating from school, being more successful.”

Duke has shared some of his own experience-based knowledge about children as the author of one of the 40 essays in What Works With Children. “If there’s one thing that really came from this, [it’s that] there are lots of ways to raise children effectively,” Duke said. “There are lots of ways to provide the emotional nourishment they need, and the idea that we have to find the ‘one way’ and follow it is probably the worst idea that we could foster or have.”

The Dukes and the authors are donating all royalties from the sale of the book to Save the Children.


Back to Emory Report Oct. 30, 2000