Tuesday, December 08, 2020

It's the Thinking

Nearly twenty years ago, there was a two-year-old in my class named Melissa who would regularly hit the other kids. Not when she was mad or when she wanted something they had, but only when they cried. The moment she heard a classmate cry, she made a beeline for them, then proceeded to methodically pummel them about the head and shoulders, which of course made things worse. She always seemed confused when we pulled her away from her victims.

My first concern was that this was somehow learned behavior, that this was how she, her siblings, or someone else in her life were treated when they became emotional. I imagined a putative parental figure, even as her actual parents struck me as kind and loving. I dug around there, talking with her mother and a few of their family friends. If there was anything to my theory, it was very well hidden. I studied the girl's behavior, looking for clues that might indicate abuse or trauma, but saw an otherwise robust, cheerful, curious little girl. 

We ruled out the possible influence of violence she had seen on television. I asked a colleague to observe her for a couple days.

She was a little delayed as far as her language development, while sometimes physically expressing herself in ways that others might consider rough like hugging too hard or bumping into others as she raced around or danced. Maybe, I thought, there was a connection there. I even tried asking her about her feelings, about her thoughts, about her behavior, but she was clearly not able to put those things into words.

Meanwhile, we adults developed a utilitarian plan: whenever a child began to cry, the closest adult went to that child's aid, while the second adult on the scene was responsible for finding Melissa and preventing her from making things worse. When I was on point, I found that she wouldn't look me in the eye nor show any other outward signs of attending to me, instead focusing like a laser on the crying child, seemingly driven by some inward compulsion to lay her hands on them. This is when I began to consider that this was about a false belief. Her compulsion was misguided compassion. She absolutely "knew" that a good pummeling was just what they needed in their moment of tears.

We talked to her about being "gentle," even going so far as to demonstrate tender touches. We pointed out that when she hit another child they cried even louder. We tried to get her to put herself in their shoes, to imagine what she would soothe her if she were crying. We read appropriate stories to her. We pointed out how the adults approached consolation. I even once tried holding her arms, like she was my puppet, controlling them so as to give her the opportunity to experience gentleness. She thought it was great fun, but it produced no immediate change in behavior.

Nothing worked, it seemed, until all at once I couldn't remember the last time we had dealt with a "Melissa problem." It had gone away. I tried to recall if it had happened from one day to the next or gradually. Whatever the case, she was no longer pummeling children who cried in her presence. She still raced to the scene of tears, but now she stood by, only occasionally reaching out, gently.

No one ever knows what really goes on in the head of another person. We cannot see through their eyes, hear through their ears, or taste through their tongues, especially when they are two-years-old, so we can never know the process that brought Melissa to a new understanding. I also know that there is no way to excise another person's false beliefs and replace them with something else. That is something that they alone can do for themselves. What I can do is strive to understand their thoughts and feelings through listening and observing. What I can do is to offer alternatives and other perspectives, then leave them to do their own thinking, especially about how their false beliefs run into conflict with themselves. And that's how learning happens. It's the thinking.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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