Thursday, June 18, 2015

Teacher Tom's Bandwagon

The way we run our summer program is like a camp in that every two weeks is a new session, which means that, from the kids' perspective at least, every second Monday is the first day of school.

Yes, about a third to a half of each session is comprised of children who attend Woodland Park during the regular school year, and there are always a few kids who have been in the summer program before, but there is always a significant cross section for whom this is a whole new experience. And even for the kids with lots of experience with me and the school, they typically only know, at most, a handful of the other kids in their session. Not only that, but we spend our whole day outdoors and the schedule is therefore different from that with which they are accustomed, all of which takes some adjustment.

For the most part we have a grand time during the summer, don't get me wrong, but it's not always fun and games. This Monday, I spent a good part of the morning, attempting to help one of the just barely two-year-olds, a boy I'd only met a few minutes before, get through his anguish at missing his mommy who really needed to be elsewhere for a couple hours. I've written about this before, how I sit with these kids as they feel their strong emotions, but it's always much more challenging on the "first day of school," of which we have plenty during the summer.

For one thing, many of these kids have no idea who I am, having only just met me, so I can't count on our history together, on all those deposits we've made into the good-time bank, so I can't really blame them for not fully trusting me. It takes at least a few days of playing together, of singing together, of reading stories together, of goofing off together, before most kids can take any particular comfort from my presence, what I often think of as getting on Teacher Tom's "bandwagon." 

The second challenge is that these kids, especially the youngest ones, have no idea what we're doing, so we can't count on the comfort that can come from familiarity and predictability. One of the most important tools I normally have in by belt during the regular school year is simply reminding upset children of the schedule: "First we play, then we clean up, then we eat snack, then we go outside, then we sing songs, then we read a story, then Mommy comes back." For many children, knowing what's next is a great and empowering thing, giving them back some of the sense of control they feel they lose when mommy leaves.

Monday was a tough day for this young guy. I strive not to use the tricks of distraction, genuinely wanting to allow the time and space for children to fully feel their emotions, but that doesn't mean that everyone approaches these things the way I do. As we sat together, a half dozen different kids approached us with toys or ideas that they thought might help this boy with whom they were attempting to empathize. One group of four older boys, after being informed by me that he was "missing his mommy," one-by-one assured him that "mommies always come back." It was as heartwarmingly sweet as it was ineffective.

I don't want any child to have a traumatic experience, especially on their first day of school, so after about half an hour, we managed to get in touch with his mom and she returned for the rest of the day. When she walked through the gate, I was sitting on the ground with her boy. I was able to assure him in that moment, "Mommy came back. Mommy always comes back."

On Tuesday, mom didn't leave him, but yesterday, Wednesday she attempted it again. Again he cried. He refused the assistance of several adults until I came on the scene. He hugged me, which he had strictly forbidden on Monday. He took my hand. He was on my bandwagon, now able to trust me after only two days of playing together. He wanted to sing a couple of the songs we'd learned together. We went together to check out the art table. We read a book in a circle with a half dozen other kids. Then . . . Well I lost track of his specific movements as he set out on his own, no longer needing me at his side.

I checked in with him visually several times. He seemed solid, engaged, moving as those young two-year-olds do, from curiosity to curiosity. At one point he fell and it startled him. He cried, he called out for mommy. I said, "You want your mommy."

He answered, "Yes. Mommy comes back."

I said, "That's right, Mommy comes back when we sing the boom-boom song."

With that, fortified by his new faith in me, his new faith in our school, and his abiding faith in Mommy, he got back to the business of playing.

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