A professional’s dress is one measure of his or her credibility, but sometimes dress is disproportionately valued as a barometer of influence. Were prominent mental health professionals to be ranked as such, Howard Glasser would not be a front runner. He doesn’t go the power suit route, and runway haircuts would be wasted on his closely shaven head. He’s unpretentious, gets his points across in a soft-spoken manner, smiles quite a bit, and there is no hint of the “difficult child” he purports to have been. So, barring these accoutrements, how did Glasser manage to create a “brand” that has engaged so many parents, professionals and others wishing to elicit children’s “best selves”?
It’s likely that Glasser’s influence is in part attributable to the self he presents, publicly and privately. He is authentic, and the techniques that he has created situate both children’s and parents’ well-being front and center. I wanted to explore the development of that authentic self as a channel for innovations. I knew that his Nurtured Heart Approach was gaining considerable traction in the local community and elsewhere. Glasser and I conversed by phone, so I couldn’t read his facial expressions and body language, but the voiced, sometimes emotive account of his journey, supplemented by print and online Nurtured Heart materials, rendered his account vivid.
His journey began in Queens, his home turf. Except for a few grade-school teachers who inspired him, he hated school. Nonetheless, he was very bright and graduated City College in psychology. Prior to graduate school, he interned and worked at treatment centers. He went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling then enrolled in a doctoral program, both at NYU. He was ABD (all but dissertation), and had chosen a dissertation topic, when he decided to take a year’s leave. He had published a study, but neither scholarly work nor running experiments to generate statistics appealed to him. “I was insulated from life.” Recalibrating, he focused on woodworking, a longstanding interest.
After Glasser dropped out of NYU, he learned woodworking and cabinet making from the ground up, sweeping floors, moving furniture and observing. Eventually, he was offered a storefront near Manhattan’s Union Square. One year morphed into 15, until he took a midlife gamble and switched careers—again. He left his shop, got married and moved to Tucson, where he has lived ever since.
Glasser was hired at a family clinic, and began (but later withdrew from) a graduate program in educational leadership that required substantial travel. By then, he had a daughter, so he took a case management job for a year. He transitioned from this position to therapist, educator and counselor to parents, teachers and administrators.
When you are young and have internships, Glasser said, you don’t have the right to rebel. You must follow the script you are given. Initially, he did. Yet despite his work in several positions, all his good intentions and extensive training, he felt he had nothing to offer that could work for his patients’ families. At that point, he wasn’t trying to create a new approach, but rather, was “just hanging on for dear life.” Sometimes he’d wake up at night and have something he thought might work. He’d try it out with kids; it would work and parents would say, “That makes sense.” What worked with one family might work with another. He wanted to help children but believed that lasting change could only be achieved through helping parents. He did not share these techniques with colleagues, whom he thought would only laugh at them.
During his year as a case manager, Glasser visited mental health centers and observed the effects of plying children with medication for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Half the scholars and medical professionals in his field have diagnosed ADHD as a brain disorder, and the other half as a chemical imbalance—and both promote medication to treat it. He did not see this yielding the desired results for “intense kids.” The people who came to him for help were caring individuals with children who did not fit the mold. Some had major behavioral issues, but also exhibited strengths that could be identified, tapped and reinforced.
Glasser looked at the field’s literature, but felt that it obscured why children’s “intensity goes awry” and moreover, what makes such children tick. After all, he maintains, “intensity is a blessing, when you have a way of dealing with it … the same life force is the source of their greatness.” He wanted to assist his clients in the most tangible ways possible to improve their lives. And then he met a Colorado family named Davis with four sons; two were adolescents. Glasser observed how the parents managed the younger boys, praising them for not breaking rules, and acknowledging the beauty they saw in them. The memory of the Davis family was a powerful influence in the development of the Nurtured Heart Approach, which he refined in the early 1990s.
Glasser had been working at a government-funded clinic, mostly for lower- to middle-class families. Eventually the funding dried up. About 1994, he was asked to give a talk about his work. He had no presentation skills, but presented anyway, and couldn’t wait to leave. A man who had been at the clinic during that presentation was a supervisor of 10 therapists at a program for challenging children. He bumped into Glasser two weeks later, and told him that after seeing his talk, he instructed the therapists in his program to start using the Nurtured Heart Approach.
Glasser realized he had made an impact. Within a year, he had his own government-funded clinic. Some centers had flowery names, but Glasser wanted one that clearly reflected his work with tough kids: Center for the Difficult Child.
In 2000, about five and a half years later, the center’s funding ended, and Glasser’s only recourse was to reinvent himself yet again. His first book had just been published; following the advice of a colleague, Glasser used direct mail to market his seminars. He started in cities of 100,000 to 200,000, and thereafter led 30 one-day seminars for each of the next 10 years, focusing on cities with populations of up to 3 million. At the outset, only mailing lists for teachers and therapists were available, but eventually therapists referred their clients to the seminars. Now the only therapists Glasser meets are those in various specialties who sign up for training with him. Also, some trainers are parents who want to pass on the positive changes that they have observed. Glasser has built a customer base for his books and training videos; a complimentary primer can be found at https://bit.ly/3sIOhJp.
Approximately half of Glasser’s trainers are educators, and the remainder are mental health professionals. He described himself as “enamored” now that more people in agencies, clinics, schools and residential treatment centers are taking his training to their agencies. No follow-up study thus far has revealed the full impact of their training. The University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health conducted a study of the Nurtured Heart Approach. Five years ago, the State of New Jersey adopted the Nurtured Heart Approach across their agencies, including substance abuse programs, foster care and residential facilities. New Jersey, which received a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant, is soon to implement an evaluative study of the approach, and West Virginia is said to be considering a similar evaluative study.
A couple of years ago, Glasser talked in Crown Heights about the Nurtured Heart Approach. In San Diego, he was asked to speak at a conference of leaders of family therapy. Chabad in Palo Alto organized a one-day Nurtured Heart training event. On a global level, Glasser has directed several training sessions in the UK and Australia and is currently working with a Japanese woman to train other trainers in Nurtured Heart. He’s had inquiries from the Schweizerdeutsch-speaking (Germanic dialect) area of Switzerland, and he plans upcoming events for Spanish-speaking audiences. His work has also been noted in respected publications.
Glasser dreams of disseminating the Nurtured Heart Approach far and wide, and founded The Nurtured Heart Institute a year ago. The Nurtured Heart has gained acceptance as a viable approach, so he is unfazed by the skeptics. He lets others advocate for the Nurtured Heart on their respective turfs. He would like the many kids who are pushed into educational frameworks that don’t help them to have an alternative. A school district can take on the Nurtured Heart Approach and make a difference. Judging by the pace at which individuals, institutions and governments are undertaking training and implementing this approach, Glasser’s dream is likely to resonate with even wider audiences in our generation and those to come.
Rachel Kovacs is an adjunct associate professor of communication at CUNY, a PR professional, theater reviewer for offoffonline.com—and a Judaics teacher. She trained in performance at Brandeis and Manchester Universities, Sharon Playhouse and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She can be reached at [email protected]