Tuesday, August 29, 2017


Several years ago, I was passing a table at which four boys were eating snack. They were discussing a classmate, a boy with sensory challenges that often manifested in ways that disturbed and even hurt his classmates. One of them said as I passed, "He's a bad guy." That stopped me in my tracks.

"Yeah," a friend replied, "He's a real bad guy."

And another, "He hurts me all the time."

The poor boy had one defender in the group who added, "He never hurts me," but his opinion was overwhelmed by the prevailing sentiment. As I stood there, they came to an agreement that they weren't going to pay with him any longer.

As a teacher, it was upsetting to hear. Yes, he had hurt these boys and others. They had every right to be wary of him, even to shun him. That said, this was a preschooler with a diagnosed condition, one that caused him to behave impulsively. He wasn't a "bad guy," of course, but there was no doubt that he frequently did bad things, things that hurt and frightened other people.

I went home that day knowing that we adults needed to do something. There is always going to be a little hitting and shoving around the preschool, but obviously, despite our best efforts, we had not succeeded in keeping the other children safe from this particular boy. Because of that, the kids, or at least the four boys I'd overheard, had decided to take matters into their own hands, labeling and then shunning, "natural" consequences that come right out of our hunter-gatherer past. But obviously, this was a natural consequence we could not allow to stand, not in a school setting and not amongst children.

Ultimately, our "solution" involved the kind of transparency that is one of the hallmarks of a cooperative school. Since all the parents work in the school as assistant teachers, all of them were already aware not only of this boy's behavior, but the underlying condition that caused it. We had already been attempting to mitigate things with a plan of action, but it was clear we were falling short, so after much discussion, some of it tense and tearful, we decided the best thing to do was to extend our transparency to the children, to share this boy's challenges with them, to explain how he wasn't a "bad guy," but that his brain sometimes made him do bad things, like hurting other people. And instead of having these discussions at school where we feared they would have the affect of shaming the boy, we placed the responsibility upon each family to talk about this boy and his challenges with their own children at home. We provided resources as a fallback, but we left it to each family to find their own way of discussing it.

This was, to say the least, a challenging emotional process for the parents of the boy who was not a "bad guy." His mother shared some of her feelings with us, but I can only imagine her private anguish. It was often crushing for her to sit in those parent meetings where we discussed her son's behavior hearing from her peers what the other children had experienced and what they were saying at home. It was almost unbearable to hear her own beloved child being labeled "bad guy." Yet, she understood it too, he had done "bad" things to those other children. She later shared with me, however, that the process had also been cathartic. She had often worried about what others were saying about her family behind closed doors, but now, with it all out in the open, she had found compassion where she had feared accusation.

As the weeks passed, families had their discussions at home, helping their children understand and how they could help him. Things got a little better. We coached them to be firm with him, even proactive:

"I don't like that!"

"You can play with me if you don't hurt me."

"You are hugging me too hard!"

"Don't knock down my building."

The hurting still happened, although perhaps not as much as before. But more importantly, the children began to show more compassion toward him when he was impulsive because we had helped them actually understand their classmate beyond the cookie cutter label of "bad guy." Sure, they still yelled at him, got angry, and cried, but they were far less prone toward shunning. I'll never forget one girl saying to him, "I know it's hard for you to do, but if you don't stop pinching me, I'm not going to play with you." It was a kind of perfect balance between compassion and self-preservation.

This process would be a difficult, if not impossible, thing to do in a traditional school where "privacy" concerns override those of transparency, but that doesn't mean that parents' hands are tied. The school may not be able to be transparent, but parents can be. We found that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal was one-on-one play after school, at homes where a calmer atmosphere made the boy less inclined to his impulsivity, where the children could form a different kind of bond than was possible at school, where they had the opportunity to make deposits in the "good time bank," so that when problems arose there was a balance to fall back upon. But perhaps most importantly, it gave the parents a chance to get to know one another which is where compassion grows best.

In other words, it all came down to relationships and it started with adults of goodwill because that's where community begins.

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