In my last post, I wrote about my concern for two brothers who were exhibiting behavior problems and were on the verge of getting temporarily suspended. Since then, the older brother has moved on to kindergarten. The younger, who we'll still call Jackson, was in class today—about 12 days since my last visit.
He'd brought a small plastic football to school and was tossing it around a bit too exuberantly. We prohibit running and other activity that isn't safe in a room with desks, chairs, low ceilings and pointed corners.
An authoritarian approach would have been to take the football away, with a lecture about how "you could put someone's eye out!"
Instead, we moved to an area defined by a wall and a rug where I asked him to limit his play. Then we practiced tossing and catching the ball, with Jackson throwing to me, toward the wall. Other kids clamored to join the game.
Jackson's the biggest kid in class now, coordinated and solid. He caught most of the tosses sent his way and tossed back, not too hard. I asked the other kids to watch and learn from his example. He kept his hands supple and his arms loose, gathering the ball to his body, instead of blocking it with stiff arms and hands that were too small to catch the ball alone.
Earlier, I'd noticed he enjoyed playing drums and knew the words to a Justin Bieber song that was playing. A teacher and I both complimented him on his playing. I incorporated rhythmic movement into the throwing and catching, which he thought was hilarious.
We kept adding complexities to our short tosses, like mixing in a french loaf from the kitchen toys. What began as an out-of-control ball flying randomly around the room had evolved into a prolonged interaction that was joined by other kids and allowed Jackson to demonstrate his mastery.
When it was time for our group meeting, the lead teacher started with a game in which each kid is introduced and jumps in the middle of the circle when his or her name is announced.
Jackson stood outside the circle, but the jumping game brought him in. Then he moved to the front of the class and participated throughout as a model student.
Later, I saw a teacher awarding him a "peace chain" which recognizes special individual behavior within the group and then rewards the group when the peace chain reaches full length.
When we went to the playground, Jackson did well with other kids playing with his ball, and none of the disagreements escalated or became physical, as can happen when they're all flying around and whining about their turns.
Yes, this was the kid I was so worried about less than two weeks ago.
So what happened?
I'm no educator, but here are a few possibilities:
- His older brother moved on. There's less pressure on Jackson to compete with or imitate his brother.
- His mom is involved. When Jackson oversteps, his mother is notified, and when he acts out too much, she has to take him out of class.
- All the teachers and assistants are involved, and we all want him to succeed.
- He's getting positive reinforcement for doing well.
- He's being allowed to be a role model.
- He's getting plenty of physical activity, which may help him manage his moods and channel his energy appropriately.
Now, if you think school should be all about structure and passing tests—and that building self-esteem in kids and recognizing their individual strengths and learning styles is just squishy liberalism at work—you might not be impressed.
But I will argue that kids like Jackson can blossom if they get the right attention and structure. He got it today, in a room with 11 kids and 4 adults. But how much will he get in the future?
I won't assume everything is peachy for him after one good interaction. Jackson is still living in a homeless shelter. He will surely be a handful in the future.
But today was a very good day.
And not just for Jackson.