Monday, July 14, 2014


When my daughter Josephine was in kindergarten, she was having trouble with another girl, one she liked a lot, but who often rebuffed her and said cruel things. There were many tearful rides home from school. I tried to help her, but it wasn't until one of those trips home took place as we were also transporting her friend Katrina that we hit on the perfect thing.

Josephine: "She's mean to me."

Katrina: "She's mean to me too. When she's mean to me I don't play with her. When she's nice to me I do play with her."

To this day, 12 years later, we still refer to this dialog as a sort of relationship philosophy touchstone.

Years back, we had a five-year-old boy in class named "Jerry" who had been diagnosed with sensory integration issues, the kind that caused him to at least once a day, often more, hurt classmates by pouncing on, hitting, or biting them. He was not "being mean" and it was not done in anger, but rather as an act of pure, uncensored impulse. A few times, I asked "Why?" and Jerry replied, "I don't know," an answer I believed.

One day, after several weeks of this, four boys sat at our snack table discussing their troubled friend.

"He's a bad guy."

"He hits me."

"I'm not going to play with him."

One boy made an effort to defend Jerry, saying, "He never hurt me," but he was in the minority.

As I listened, it became clear that the boys were leading up to taking matters into their own hands. They were agreeing to not play with him. They were going to shun Jerry. Naturally, they didn't know the word, it was not something they were taught, it was simply a rational response to feeling unsafe: avoid what was hurting them, in this case a boy with impulse control issues. Of course, I'm the adult, I'm responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of all the kids, and as much as I understood the children's logic, I couldn't let this happen. I went home that day in a kind of despair, as I did for weeks thereafter.

Shunning is as ancient as humanity. In all traditional hunter-gatherer societies, in most agricultural ones, and in every religion with which I'm familiar, shunning is the ultimate "consequence" for repeated anti-social behavior. Even in our industrialized society one could argue that imprisonment and the death penalty are forms of shunning.

In this case, the wisdom of Katrina that had served my own child so well was at odds with our community's responsibility for the emotional and social well-being of one of its members, a boy who could be a good playmate, but who also, regularly and almost at random it seemed, would become overwhelmed to the point of hurting the rest of us.

Normally, my instinct is to rely on natural consequences and shunning, after all, is a natural consequence, but it doesn't take too much imagination to know that letting matters run their course would result in a kind of cruelty that would do little more than to make a young, confused child even more confused. On the other hand, children were going home with bite marks, bruises, and some had even begun to cower whenever Jerry came near them.

We're a cooperative preschool, which means that parents work in the classroom with me as assistant teachers, so the situation was apparent to all of us. To their credit, the parents remained mostly compassionate about this boy even as they worried that their own child would be the next victim of his impulses. My best idea was to either shadow Jerry myself or to assign another adult the duty: to stick with him, especially during moments of transition or when the intensity of our play began to ramp up, and hope to catch him, physically if necessary, before any damage was done either to the other children or to Jerry's reputation.

During one crucial parent meeting as we discussed what to do, emotions rising, I began to think that we were headed for our school's ultimate shunning: asking Jerry's family to leave the school. It wasn't a solution I supported, but at the same time, I would have understood it had the parents, the owners of our school, made that decision. But when the notion was floated, voices rose up in objection, with several families declaring that if we asked this boy to leave, their family would leave as well. To my relief, we were not going to shun him. It was a decision that unified us around figuring this out, even if we weren't really sure what to do.

Jerry's family was working with an OT, an occupational therapist, and they were already doing everything they knew how. We continued our shadowing regime during class, but the big breakthrough was that parents talked to their kids at home about this boy, his challenges, and how they were now our challenges because he was a member of our community. They talked to their children about the boy's impulses, about how he often couldn't help himself, about how he didn't mean any harm, even when he caused it. Families began to invite him to play dates after school and on weekends. I wasn't privy to most of this and I imagine each family approached it somewhat differently, but in a matter of weeks, things began to change. Kids were, of course, still being pounced on, hit, and bitten, but not quite so often due to our calm, systematic adult vigilance. When it did happen, however, the children were much more philosophical about it, even sometimes shrugging it off when they would have otherwise raised hell, saying things like, "That's what Jerry does."

One day, a couple months into our experiment, one of the boys who had been a frequent victim and had previously labeled Jerry a "bad guy" was sitting on a bench with friends. Jerry shambled up and asked, "Can I sit here?" to which the boy replied, "Sure . . . If you don't hurt me." And quite earnestly, Jerry answered, "I won't hurt you."

It was such a powerful moment for me. It seemed that Jerry's friends had, indeed, taken matters into their own hands. Over the course of the following weeks, I heard the kids standing up for themselves without putting Jerry down, saying calmly, "Just don't hurt me, okay?" "Don't bite me," and "You can play, but I don't want you to jump on me." Each time, Jerry replied sincerely, "I won't," and most of the time, with this promise made, he didn't.

I don't know if we solved anything or if we even handled in the "right" way, but we did manage to find a balance that didn't require shunning and I'm proud of all of us for that.

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Shereen said...

What an awesome community building process.

Anonymous said...

I cannot express how much I needed this! I have a child that we have been struggling to get help. I have seen this very same behavior in my class and have worried about how to be a better teacher for him.

Amanthus said...

Wow, a familiar struggle for our family. Our son has sensory processing differences and is challenged with regulation, impulse control and knowing how to engage his world sometimes. Shunning is a powerful hurt. True learning took place at this school with patience, sense of community and communication. Right on! Has me reflecting on differences and how we handle those moments in society. Thinking about moments of what shunning felt like and how that creates silent wounds. How are those silent wounds reacting in our society as they get older? Thought provoking f'sure.

Goncik said...

Thank you for sharing this touching story... I believe the behavior of parents was crucial which should inspire us...

T said...

I don't know if you can, as the author, see the views on this post...

I want to tell you that as a teacher in a co-op I come back to this post and I read it when I'm struggling. I send the URL to parents when I want to say what you've said here so eloquently but I don't have the words/experience/wisdom. I have read this entry so many times, and I almost always come away more centered, and with an idea of what I need to do next with my own Jerry...or class with a Jerry. It occurs to me that I've never properly said thank you for this sapience. I bet I'm not the only one.

Thank you. Thanks for guiding me in helping others, and thanks for all the people like me that have read this post eleventy-billion times.