Thursday, August 5, 2010
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.