Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Safe Place


One of Mama Kat’s writing prompts this week asked about a time that you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone.

Some background before I write to the prompt:

I am a school psychologist at an elementary school. Last year, we had a self-contained program for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. I knew that it would be challenging to get a program like this started and there would be so much to learn about in working with the children. How would I be a positive influence in their lives? How could I teach them coping skills that could help them? These thoughts were only the tip of an iceberg of worries and fears I had.

At the same time, I also knew that I absolutely, with all my heart, love children. I relate to children well and have had so many successful and positive experiences over the years with children and their families, so I was pretty confident in my abilities to build meaningful relationships with the kids in this program. I figured - the rest? Well, I would have to take things as they came, remember my past learnings, and trust my gut on what was right.

What I learned over that year was more than I could have ever imagined possible. I came to fondly call the group of students in that program, “the boys,” or, “our boys” since they happened to be all boys (which is, unfortunately, common in programs like this).

I learned that some of our students come from unimaginable backgrounds and have already, at very young ages, withstood some of the most traumatic abuses possible. In some, if not all cases, they have been hurt deeply physically and emotionally, have been abandoned and bounced around, and have built thick, almost impenetrable walls of defense around their hearts as a result. All of them carried multiple medical diagnoses like juvenile bipolar, intermittent rage disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, etc., and had medication “schedules.”

I came to understand that the best I could do was attempt to understand these children and their families, learn from them, and help them learn from each other. The best I could do was BE with them. To be a constant and stable force in their lives. To help them re-learn trust. To help them re-learn safety. To help them use their words and communicate their experiences and thoughts. To help them use creative outlets of expression. To help them learn about and embrace their feelings rather than only reacting to their feelings.

I usually do not write too much about work-related things on this blog, but here I will write a story from my experiences in the most confidential, careful way I can. Names have been changed and no identifying information exists.

A Safe Place

I was called over the intercom to assist in the Affective Needs room. This usually meant that at least one child was “in crisis.” While walking as quickly as I could to the room, I was not sure what I would find there. Whenever I was called to the room during a crisis, I pushed worry and fear (“Will I be able to handle this? Will I know what to do? Will the child respond to me? Will the child attack me? Is somebody hurt?) out of my head and tried to convey a feeling of calmness and stillness within.

I took a breath before opening the door.

The classroom was no longer a classroom. It was chaos. It was a tornado of paper, pencils, chairs, desks, tables, stickers, erasers, folders, cubbies, and any other material you can think of that exists in a classroom. All the children, except one, had been taken to work in the library. Sean was in the middle of the chaos, the creator of the chaos.

Everything had been ripped off the walls andhad joined the pile of debris that filled the room. All tables and chairs and desks had been thrown or overturned. All contents of all desks had been spilled.

Sean slowly paced the room, breathing heavily, eyes darting around looking for damage to be done.

I thought he was ignoring my presence. I had slipped in quietly and was taking a quiet moment to assess Sean’s actions and the environment. A teacher’s assistant stood in an adjacent corner, supervising.

In this state, Sean was a like a calculating, scared tiger. If he was approached, he would lash out. So we would wait for a moment, just the right moment when we could be let in, and we would try to diffuse, to calm, to bring safety back. Until then, we could only watch him destroy things that were, in this situation, less important than Sean’s dignity and our safety.

I knew he was no longer ignoring me when he began to throw tacks at me. One by one, each tack was thrown from the box. I would simply move away slowly, calmly from each small missile. I showed no reaction.

I looked at Sean. There was a bit of himself shining through in those dark eyes. He wasn’t completely out of control. He was starting to get tired.

I carefully walked over to the radio and put on some soft music. I knew that Sean liked music. Without words (which can so easily escalate a person), I wanted to show him that, no matter what the room looked like, no matter the anger he had inside him, no matter the mistake he had made, and no matter the tacks he threw at me, I still cared about him and who he was.

Softly, softly, “Sean, will you talk with me about what’s going on?”

A tack zoomed by. Just one tack. Then, more pacing.

“You can handle this. Whatever it is, you will be able to handle it.” I said.

“NO! I WON’T! I’VE RUINED EVERYTHING! IT’S NOT OK! I’M HAVING A RED DAY!” Tears and snot ran freely down his face, he rushed to the desk, to the computer and started to pick it up.

“Sean. Don’t. Put it down. Don’t make it worse.”

He put it down. “IT’S NOT OK! IT WILL NEVER BE OK!”

He ran over to the corner of the room, found some broken wall dividers, created a make-shift tent, and crawled underneath, barricading himself.

This was a good sign. He was starting to think. He had stopped himself from throwing the computer. He talked to me. He was no longer pacing. He would calm down. Somehow, we would work it out.

“Whenever you are ready to talk, just show me your hand.” I said.

I waited. I looked around at all the damage, the physical evidence of a boy who had turned every confusing emotion swirling in him into anger. I had come to know Sean very well, and even though I did not yet know the event that had caused this rage episode, I knew that it had everything to do with him trying to maintain one small shred of his dignity. Sean had many deep fears. Fears of humiliation, fears of failing, fears of abandonment, fears of not being good enough or perfect enough. Anything that threatened him and his fleeting sense of worth was punished swiftly and harshly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the tips of his fingers peek out from under his shelter and then quickly retreat back. This was my signal, this was the white flag.
I approached his make-shift tent. He was laying on his side, curled in a ball. There was really no good way for me to sit with him, so I got on the ground and leaned on my elbow.

The truth was, I had grown comfortable with the floor over time. When I’m called into a classroom, and the students look at me with wide eyes and then point to a corner of the room, I know I will probably be crawling under a table, squeezing into a small place in order to try and reach the child that has given up on the world around him.

Sean began to tightly mumble, almost inaudibly. “Mrs. Schultz, she was mean to me. She corrected me on my paper.”

I just asked him questions about the incident and listened. I never lied to him and told him it was OK, don’t worry about it. I did not sugar coat or ignore the rejection he so deeply felt. I would simply say in kid’s terms, “That sucks. That’s hard to be corrected.”

He went on to explain that he was mostly upset that now he would have a “red day” which holds various consequences within his classroom. I would say, “Yep. It’s a red day, that is true, but you can handle it. Whatever the consequences are, you will deal with them and survive. You’re a strong guy.”

“I know,” he sheepishly said.

This was not a moment for a lesson on anger management and impulse control. We would do that in group time the next day when learning could actually take place and Sean’s mind was not in crisis. This was a time for accepting consequences and trying to make things right for the rest of the day.

“You know what you have to do?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Sean got up and slowly started cleaning the room. He put up the desks, put the tables right, gathered the students’ folders, reorganized them, and put them in their desks. It was painstaking and slow and quiet. He gathered the torn posters from the wall, put them as nicely as he could on the teacher’s desk and said, “I ripped these down. Maybe I can fix it tomorrow?”

“Yes, just set them there,” I said.

The teacher’s assistant went to find the rest of the class to let them know it was safe to return to the classroom.

By the time the rest of the class came back, Sean was sitting at his desk, quietly working on his math. The boys came in and went to their desks, seemingly unfazed by the events of the afternoon, content that it was not them that time to have lost control.

There was only about a half an hour left in the school day, so I did a few things before making sure I walked with the class out to their own, special bus. The boys got on their bus, and some of them were shouting “Bye!” to the teachers and to me and shouting at each other in fun.

Sean got to his seat and looked at me and gave me a small smile. The bus began to pull away. I waved goodye to the boys, but Sean was the only one still looking, still paying attention to the teachers at the curb. He put his hand up, against the window and never moved it until the bus rounded the corner, out of sight.

37 comments:

Langdowns said...

Wow. I've got chills and some tears welling. That was beautiful Kristy. I learned a lot. You must be such a shining light in their world. Thanks so much for sharing.

Stacey @ Entropified said...

God bless you and your work.

Laura @ The Things I Said I'd Never Do said...

My brother was a lot like Sean. In school he was simply regarded as "the bad kid" because he didn't come from a broken home. He didn't have anyone like you. No one ever approached him on his level and slowly worked to reach him. Instead, he just got yelled at and prodded by teachers, which only exacerbated the situation. No one thought that maybe he might have some issues causing his lash outs.

I wish there were more of you in the school systems.

jadenotjaded said...

thank you for your work..we need more psychologists like you!

Anonymous said...

You are an amazing mother, wife, teacher, psychologist, and daughter. You fill my heart with pride. I love you, head to toe. Mom

The Literary Lioness said...

I'm so impressed. I would never have the patience to do that job. You write beautifully, too. I think you should write a book about your experiences.

Found you on Mama Kat's Writing Workshop!

http://www.theliterarylioness.com

cristina said...

you know, I work with the exact same children you do but in a safe home and a residential home. It is heartbreaking what these little kids endure in their short short lives. and it's so frustrating when society, only see their acting out as behavioral, when they don't take into account that these children are only doing what they do because that's how they protect what's left of their sense of self. You do an amazing job.

Paul and Kerry said...

you should know that I am crying. thank you for your patience and your desire to work with kiddos that need your help. thank you for this post to help people that don't work or have with special kids understand them. I hope that my son always is surrounded by people like you as he goes through school. He generally is a happy boy but does protest when pushed or doesn't feel like doing a task. I worry that they won't know what to do to help him through it. common of special needs moms. It's why some of us hover around the classrooms.

again, great post! xo

Tenille said...

What a beautiful story. Those boys are very lucky to have someone as patient and caring as you to help them.

Mommy Spirit said...

Wow, you are such a powerful writer! I feel so incredibly sad for these kids. The only glimmer of hope is to know that they have you--someone who can connect with them and show them humor, love, support, and friendship. You definitely have a story to tell. These kids, unless they get help, unfortuantely, will be the ones who grow up to repeat violent behavior, get in trouble with the law, and be forgotten about...They are so lucky to have you. Maybe, now, they have a fighting chance.

WarsawMommy said...

We need more people like you in our schools - all over the world. People like you do not exist at all - at all! - here in Poland. The system is absolutely resistant to changes like this, since people like you 'challenge the teacher's authority'.

Yeah. I call bullshit too.

It breaks my heart.

Jessica @ Barefoot by the Sea said...

What a great post - I'm feeling lucky to have learned more about what you do and how many people you help on a daily basis. Thanks for the work you do, everyday!

Linsey said...

Wow, totally crying right now!!! My keyboard is wet! It's always great to start off the morning with a good cry. It isn't even 6:00 am yet and my emotions are through the roof!! Thank you for the story, it was really great to read!!!

chele said...

Our schools need more people who are willing to look beyond the "bad kid" facade and really dig into what is at the heart of the matter. You and what you do are so very valuable. Thank you.

Krysten @ After 'I Do' said...

Wow that was AMAZING.

Arti said...

Wow... That was so so heart warming... Great.. Coming over from Bpotw

Melissa said...

This post is just wonderful. I'm so glad there are people out there like you. Thanks so much for sharing!

Aging Mommy said...

Oh my goodness. It is so very awful the things so many young and innocent children are subjected to and how very much this affects their lives. I cannot imagine the job you have to do which although it sometimes must be very rewarding, must also be very heartbreaking too. What an insightful post.

Kalee said...

I'm crying. Having worked in classrooms before I have rarely seen situations like this work out so well. In too many instances a teacher actually makes it worse. You're doing a great job that is so desperately needed.

Lucy said...

Kristy, tears here too. That too many children are so damaged so young is heartbreaking. And that there are people bracve enough to work through red days is amazing.

Thank you, Kristy, for the insight.

kathryn said...

Oh, that poor boy. I've lived with anger from my son with autism for 18 years now.

It's an absolute blessing that you were able to break through to him.

This was a beautiful post and shows how with a lot of patience and a good heart, someone can get through to these poor kids...who are oftentimes overwhelmed by their own emotions.

Just my opinion...

You've got a special gift, Kristy.

Oddyoddyo13 said...

Oi. I might be rethinking my career path now-its fantastic that you can calm them down, and that you worked with kids like that. Probably one of the best things you can do. :)

Tarunita said...

Just could not control my tears while reading the post....Really touching!!!
I loved your blog and you have one more follower :)

Kristy said...

Thank you all so much for your heartfelt comments. Even if we do not have children with special needs, or do not work with children with special needs, as women and mothers, these kind of experiences speak to our hearts. I have had family and friends tell me that I need to write about the children I work with, but I have resisted until now. I may just have to try some more of this.

Marylin said...

You brought a tear to my eye with that. Sean and all the other children you've worked with are lucky to have you in their lives. :)

Nomie said...

It breaks my heart a little when I read posts like this. Being a teacher I have worked with kids like this... all boys. I can on;y imagine what they have endured in their young lives.
You write about Sean with such compassion and understanding. Sean and the other children you work with are indeed lucky to have you.

Jingle said...

being helpful is divine.
lovely post.
;)

jazzygal said...

Fabulous post Kristy.

How fantastic for "Sean" to learn that his outburst, his "red day" was understood. And that he would get through it.

There are so many misunderstood children severely punished and expelled for far less.

My 10 y.o has PDD nos and his outbursts have reduced dramatically over the years but they still happen from time to time and are dealt with appropriately. What I can't stand is a child being punished when they don't know what it is they have done wrong. I firmly believe they should be taught (with Autism,as you know, they have to be taught appropriate behaviours) the correct way to behave after the outburst. Only when they have been taught and understand what's expected of them should there be consequences if they don't respond correctly in a given situation.

sadly, they are usually punished without being taught. That doesn't help anyone.

Can you come work in our school too?!! xx Jazz\y

Broot said...

Very powerful. Thank you for writing that.

Marie said...

Wow, that was really moving....You are really gifted, I don't think I would've handled the situation so well....Sean is VERY lucky to have you in his life.

Tiffany said...

You wrote about my son. Not literally, but at first I did wonder if you were one of the district psychologists who rotate through the schools with high functioning special needs kids. My 9 year old is autistic. He is also exhibiting signs of bi-polar disorder. We worry about schizophrenia (my ex-husband has all of those and has been in and out of hospitals for the past 5 years.)

He has days where he screams, throws desks, rips up schoolwork and books, tantrums and melts down. He gets sent to the Safe Room to meet with the Doc of the Day. She listens and talks to him in a comforting and patient way that only a handful of people can really really do. He will return to his classroom, pick up the mess he created and apologize. With her guidence and help, this is happening less and less.

His name is Sean.

Karen V. said...

The picture you paint and the background you give before letting us into the classroom, put us all right there with you. Obviously, we are only getting the view of the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot going on with this young man the depths of which could not possibly be covered in a post but would be fitting in a book, should you write one...

Beautiful story. Well handled. He did not think he was getting special attention for his outburst but you were gentle with him as well. It is obvious "Sean" is smart but hurting. I hope that you were able to help him further after the event was over.

Margaret Almon said...

Very eloquent! Being present with a child is a very healing thing, and I am grateful for the adults in my life that actually saw me, and knew me, when I had a lot going on to deal with.

Josh Hoyt said...

It is wonderful to here about the importance of unconditional positive regard. It is because of our efforts of showing love for those in need that helps bring about change. I liked how you gave him an out. He couldn't see an out but because of your approach he saw a way to save grace and make it out of a horrible situation he was in. Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

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