Winthrop R. Adkins, a Columbia University psychologist who devised and managed a coping skills educational program intended to help at-risk youths and adults deal with everyday life issues, died July 17 at a hospital in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.
The cause was complications after lung surgery, according to a death notice in the New York Times.
For more than 40 years, Dr. Adkins and his wife, Caroline M. Adkins, directed the Institute for Life Coping Skills, initially under the auspices of Teachers College at Columbia and since 1992 based in Stamford.
Central to the institute’s mission was the empowerment of program participants to cope with such matters as getting and keeping a job, developing a career, sustaining a marriage, being a parent, understanding family dynamics and facing the losses that occur in every life.
The seeds of this mission were sown almost 50 years ago in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where as a young psychologist Dr. Adkins was part of an anti-poverty program team setting up a training center to help educationally and economically disadvantaged youths become employable.
“Traditional counseling methods did not work,” Dr. Adkins discovered, according to Caroline Adkins. “There was a lack of knowledge about how the world worked, a lack of role models. . . . All the tests we had were irrelevant. . . . They needed to learn so much about the world. . . . They needed a strong learning methodology.”
Through a variety of small group exercises, games, role playing and dramatic simulations — such as a waiter exploding in anger because of a meager tip — participants were asked to examine their inner selves, exploring such issues as “Who am I?” and “Where do I want to go?”
They made videotapes of themselves answering those questions. Most had never done anything like that before.
Several statistical studies of the Adkins program’s effectiveness showed some improvement in jobs retention. A New York City Department of General Services 10-month follow-up showed 38 percent of Adkins graduates gainfully employed, compared with 1 percent in a similar comparison group.
In another follow-up study, 22 percent of 448 Adkins graduates from nine New York welfare client serving agencies were reported to have found full-time employment.
Since the Adkins program was founded at Columbia in 1974, more than 5,000 staff members have been trained as life-skills educators and more than 1 million have graduated from the program, which has been offered at more than 2,000 agencies including prisons, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, welfare-to-work programs, economic-opportunity centers and community colleges.
Winthrop Ross Adkins was born in Beirut — then under Syrian control — on Oct. 25, 1932. He was the son of Christian Congregationalist missionaries. He grew up in Massachusetts, graduated in 1951 from the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and in 1955 from Princeton.
After Navy service, he received a master’s degree in psychology at Columbia in 1958 and a doctorate in psychology at Columbia in 1963.
In 1968, he joined the faculty at Teachers College, where he retired as professor emeritus of psychology and education in 1997 but continued to serve as president of the Institute for Life Coping Skills.
His first marriage, to Susan Fisher, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1986, Caroline Manuele Adkins of Greenwich, Conn.; two children from his first marriage, Jason Adkins of Brookline, Mass., and Jennifer Ernst of McLean, Va.; and five grandchildren.