Thursday, May 2, 2013

Working with explosive children

Here's an example of how I work with some of the hardest kids to educate.

Harry is an 8 year old boy in grade 3 who is very active. He is also very curious and asks a million questions a day to anyone he happens to be standing beside. What are those men building? Why does that truck have a bucket? Did you see that motorcycle? What's that sound? Why are we going to the library? Can I go swimming?

Some might describe Harry as a bad kid who is disrespectful, defiant and out of control, but I don't. You see the words we use create labels and labels have bias, so I describe Harry as a very active kid who thinks and advocates for himself in an effort to meet his needs. However, because he is lagging skills, he does not advocate for himself in a successful or adaptive way.

Because my classroom is in a hospital, the unit is often locked, so I have a identification badge that unlocks the door so I can come and go. When our class goes for our morning walk, Harry is used to using my badge to swipe and unlock the door. He thinks it's fun.

One afternoon, he asked me for my badge so I gave it to him -- then he asked if he could hang on to it while we went bowling. I said that I trusted him and that he could hang on to my badge for the afternoon. He smiled. I could tell that he liked that I said I trusted him.

Did I trust him? No, not really, but if we waited to trust Harry until we actually trusted him, we would never trust him. Harry will learn to be trustworthy only if we are prepared to trust him even when he is not ready to be trusted.

We went bowling and had a great time, but after we returned to the hospital, Harry began to search his pockets for my badge. A look of panic struck him like a deer in headlights.

"Oh no, I lost your badge."

Deep down I was not impressed, but I had to suppress my frustration and see this less as a crisis and more as an opportunity. "Ok, check your pockets again. Make sure you didn't miss it."

Despite my optimism, we both knew it wasn't there.

"Nope. It's not here. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I lost your badge. I'm really sorry."

"It's OK, Harry. You only need to apologize once. It looks like we have a problem. What do we do with problems?"

"We solve them," Harry replied with very little confidence.

"So how do we solve this problem?"

"I don't know."

"If it's not in your pockets, where do you think it might be?"

"At the bowling alley."

"Maybe. Could it be in the cab?"

"No. I didn't have it in the cab. I had it last at the bowling alley. We need to go back to the bowling alley, " Harry said with a glimmer of hope.

"That is one solution. I wonder if there's another way of finding out if my badge is at the bowling ally without actually driving there again?"

"We could phone them!" Harry was getting excited.

"Sounds like a plan. Let's go phone them together." We walked back up to the classroom. I looked up the phone number and Harry dialed.

"I wonder what you could say to the bowling alley?" I asked.

"I don't know."

"Well, you could start by telling them your problem."

So I sat next to Harry while he phoned. I had to help him out at first. Basically, I had to script him and he would just repeat after me, but then he got the hang of it and knew what to say without my help. First he asked them to check the arcade, but it wasn't there. Then he asked them to check where he took off his shoes, but it wasn't there. Lastly, he asked them to check the fifth lane where we bowled and they found it!

Harry was so excited, he high fived me and was about to hang up before I stopped him and asked, "what should we do now?"

"Can you bring it to the hospital?" Harry impulsively asked the person from the bowling alley.

I started to laugh because he was so darn cute but I cut him off and said, "No, no, no. Tell her that I will drop by later and pick it up."

He finished by saying thank you.

John Dewey once said, "We don't learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience." This is why it's important for Harry to experience this kind of problem solving, and it is equally important to guide him through reflecting on this experience. So we reflected:

"How did we solve this problem?" I asked.

"We worked together."

"How did we work together?"

"We talked."

"Did we cry, scream, yell or get angry?"


"Would those things have helped us solve this problem?"


"Did I get mad? Did I blame you?"

"Nope. Nope."

"Did you solve this problem by yourself?"

"No. We helped each other out."

"That's right. We had to work together by communicating."

We high fived and he left.


At first glance, this story might appear to be uninteresting, but here's why it's so important:

  • It would have been easy for me to see this as an inconvenient problem; however, the real challenge is to see the opportunity in this problem. Because Harry lost my badge, we now had the opportunity to work together in solving a very real problem that has a context and a purpose.
  • Harry is explosive and has a very difficult time solving problems. Working with Harry to solve his problems like this may be the only hope we have of reducing the frequency of his misbehavior over the long haul, and our only hope for helping him grow into a caring citizen.
  • The next day, another problem came up but this time someone wronged Harry. He exploded and pouted. He blamed and yelled. So I asked him if he could remember when he lost my badge. Of course he did. I asked him if I blamed and yelled at him when he made a mistake. His expression changed -- he calmed down and I could tell he was picking up my point. I asked him if he could treat others in a way that he like to be treated. He was agreeable. He still needed help problem solving but he was less apt to explode.
  • Can you see how reminding Harry of my expectations that he should have taken better care of my badge would have been at best unhelpful? The problem is not that he doesn't know my expectations -- the problem is that he lags the skills to successfully meet my expectations -- so we use this very real unsolved problem to teach the lagging skills.
  • Can you see how punishing Harry for losing my badge would be completely unhelpful and more likely to make things worse? There are many reasons why punishments fail, and in this case it would have done nothing more than make Harry mad and distract him from solving the real problem and distract me from teaching him. It takes courage not to punish, and it takes real effort to see misbehavior as an opportunity for the teacher to teach and the student to learn.
Here's another cool story on how to work with children who are hard to like and hard to teach.

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