Of course, solutions to behavioral problems don’t always come this easily, and sometimes involving parents and creating behavioral goal sheets isn’t enough. In Antoine’s case, I first saw him as a 4-year-old prekindergartener, when he started cursing at the secretaries and principal in the main office. The year after, he began counseling with me twice a week, individually and in a group of three. As time went by, it became obvious he couldn’t do his classwork, and, except for sitting at the computer, wasn’t able to focus or complete tasks. Rather than being labeled stupid, some children, like Antoine, would rather be seen as bad, so they act up. Eventually, his fighting, spitting, and cursing at his peers and teachers earned him a reputation as a kid to avoid and fear. Even in his small group, he’d hit me when I tried to prevent him from hitting others. Although at times he was wonderful to work with—polite, appreciative, and beautifully self-reflective—that could all disappear in a flash.
Despite the collective efforts of the staff, Antoine’s behavior worsened. His dad worked all day in the fruit market, and his mother didn’t take phone calls from the school. When we finally contacted her, we suggested he be moved to a school with a smaller class size and a larger teacher–student ratio. However, she rejected this option, saying her cousin had had a bad experience in special education. But after more suspensions and children hurt by his hand, she agreed to visit the school with a different class environment. Finally, after another visit and a great deal of handholding by our staff, she tearfully agreed to have Antoine try it. In spite of his difficulties, we knew he had a strong connection to PS 48 and was sad to leave. We wanted him to know there were no hard feelings and we’d miss him, so we had a party to send him off, with balloons and streamers and cake. He glowed in the attention and positive feelings toward him, which we hoped would follow him to his new school. Although he was suspended within the first month, the principal tells me he’s now settled in and doing well.
Wednesday. Jamaya walks in, sits quickly, and folds his arms. Tears start to run down his cheeks. He’s a sensitive boy, who gets upset when teased. He can dish it out, though, and often gets in trouble. Today, I give him my “Ned and Ted” talk, something out of my grab bag of tried-and-true methods that I use to get through to kids without sounding too therapeutic. I tack two cartoon faces, Ned and Ted, on my bulletin board. They’re both the same smiling picture, except Ted has no ears. I ask Jamaya if he notices the difference. When he notes that Ted has no ears, I say he just sometimes turns them off. Kids seem to accept the idea that they can choose to turn their ears off when someone’s teasing them more readily than they can accept the advice to simply ignore them. To illustrate this point, I tell Jamaya that he probably has his ears turned off to some things right now, like the truck driving by the school and people talking in the hall. “You’re listening to me,” I say, “so you’ve turned your ears off to the other stuff.” He gets the idea and is willing to try it. We high-five each other, and he skips out of my office with a smile.
Whenever I work with children, I make sure they know I like spending time with them as people and my interest in them isn’t solely focused on the problem they’re having. In our work together, I try to channel their interests and expand on their successes. I explain the main reason I’m working with them is to help them meet a specific goal, and we often talk about who in their lives would be especially proud to see them moving toward their goal. Also, I make it a priority to find something I like about a child, and then I make sure to let him or her know about these positive qualities I see. This kind of sustained interest in a child week after week is often more important than any specific technique I might use.
Thursday. Jason, Marcus, and Maria are friendly kids on an individual basis, but their teacher was exasperated by their behavior as a group, overreacting to perceived slights and generally acting out. By now they’ve all bought into the Ted and Ned story, and are showing improvement in class. Maria is the group leader, making sure turns are taken and manners are minded. Jason can be deeply honest about his feelings, which helps the others to do the same. Marcus is shy, but the other two coax him to talk when we’re together. Today, Marcus is talking about how angry he got at Jason last week for mocking his shoes. Jason thinks for a moment and says, “You’re right. I did laugh, and didn’t care how you felt. I’m sorry.”
As much as possible, I try to work with kids in groups. I’m often impressed by how kids can support each other, defend one another’s stance on an issue, and empathize. It’s powerful to witness kids you might think have been hardened and traumatized by their tough experiences in life reach out toward another when they talk about their imprisoned fathers, living in a shelter, or what it’s like to have a brother killed in gang violence. Even supportive silence after children say anything that was difficult to say tells them that they were heard and it’s okay to say more.
Toward the end of the day, I have my weekly meeting with the Student Council, a motivated group of fifth-graders whose job is to survey their peers weekly for ideas to better the school. Things they’ve planned and carried out include food drives, a spring fundraiser for charities they research, school clubs, and a peer tutor program. A few months ago, Reginald had the idea of putting together a video about bullying. With the help of other staff and a professional filmmaker, we recently completed it. Today, we decide to call it “Bullying: You Are Not Alone,” and we post it on Vimeo so people online can watch it.
Friday. The principal springs for bagels and coffee for the staff on Friday mornings. It’s a time to be relaxed, to review the things that didn’t go well in the week, and to celebrate the small successes. The rest of the morning is business as usual: I see my groups, break up a fight, help a lost kindergartener back to class, and talk to some third-graders about teasing their classmates.