Monday, July 22, 2019

"Everyone Who Is A Problem Is My Teacher"



Teaching preschoolers keeps you humble. Even after decades, the moment you think you've seen it all, a child comes along who let's you know that you don't. That is both the blessing and the curse of our profession.

Not long ago, for instance, I found myself with a three-year-old who solved most of his conflicts by hitting or shoving other children. And he had a lot of conflicts. Indeed, it was almost as if he sought out reasons to disagree. This is not such a rare things, of course, but what struck me as most odd was that he didn't show any visible signs of emotion: no yelling, no crying, no grimacing or glowering. To me it appeared as if he were just going about this business of hitting and shoving like another child might go to work on a disassembled puzzle he found on a table. In contrast, of course, he left plenty of obvious signs of emotion among the victims of his hitting and shoving. And making matters worse, he often continued pummeling children who he had already reduced to tears until an adult intervened. Infuriatingly, he didn't even seem to go easier on younger, smaller children, treating them to the same sort of violence without discrimination. Someone along the way had obviously managed to convinced him to "use his words," which manifested most often as him saying to a child, "My turn!" as he delivered his first blow, or "Share with me!" as he shoved a child to the ground.

As you can imagine, I spent the first few days with this boy, trying everything in my toolbox; shadowing him, trying to anticipate him, stopping the violence physically when I could, and talking, talking, talking. I needed to get him on my bandwagon, I knew that, but how? I started our day together being his best buddy, hanging out with him, showing him cool things, complementing him. When he engaged in hitting or shoving, I tried reasoning, but he wasn't having it, cheerfully changing the subject, no matter how sternly or sincerely or pointedly I delivered my message about the importance of not hurting other people. I offered him suggestions for alternatives to hitting or shoving, again with no luck. The only time he showed emotion in conventional ways was when I thwarted him in his efforts, taking his hand for instance in mid-punch and saying, "I can't let you hit people." Then he would shout and cry, but not, it seemed out of any sense of remorse, but rather because he was now mad at me for preventing him from getting his way through hitting or shoving.

One day, I caught his arm from behind before he could deliver his first blow to a child who was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. He had simply wanted the toy she was holding and was going to get it the most efficient way possible. At least that's how it seemed to me. He immediately reacted to me violently, twisting his body this way and that in an effort to free his arm from my grip. He then tried to hit the poor girl with his free hand, so I grabbed that one too. I had dropped to my knees and so we were face-to-face. He showed no emotion as he struggled against my grip. I said, as calmly as I could muster, "I can't let you hit people."

When he continued to wrestle, his eyes still on the toy he had wanted, I said, "I'm much stronger than you. I'm not going to let go because I'm worried you're going to hurt people," still striving for an even, calm voice.

It took several minutes, but finally he began to settle down, still tugging and pulling, but with lesser and lesser urgency, but he didn't stop entirely until the child with the toy moved farther away. Then he turned his back toward me and fell into my lap. I was still holding his arms, which were now crossed over his chest, with mine crossed there as well. It was almost a if he were using me as a blanket in which to wrap himself. I said again, "I'm holding you because I'm worried that you will hurt someone. If I let you, go will you hit someone?"

He didn't respond verbally, but seemed to almost sink more deeply into my lap. I let go of his wrists and simply held him for a moment. He made no effort to escape. After a couple minutes I said it again, "I'm holding you because I'm worried that you will hurt someone. If I let you go, will you hit someone?" He still didn't respond, so I continued to hold him. Then after a time I again asked the question, "If I let you go, will you hit someone?" This time he answered, "No," so I let him go. I was prepared for him to chase down the child with the toy he wanted, but he didn't. From that point on, I approached him with an offer of my lap and a hug, something he always accepted. The behaviors didn't disappear entirely, but they did lessen both in frequency and intensity.

That boy was only in my life for a few weeks so I never really got to know him, and certainly not enough to seriously entertain my suspicions about sensory integration or other potential "causes" for his behavior, but I will never forget him because of what I learned from him that day.

A couple nights ago I attended a meeting with one of my early mentors, a man named Tom Drummond. At one point, discussing a completely different topic, he said, "Everyone who is a problem is my teacher." And that's why I'm thinking of that boy, my problem and teacher, today.


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