Sunday 7 April 2013

"I need another note..."

Those of us who are privileged to work in schools need to be aware of  how the slightest act can lead to a massive realization on behalf of one of our students... we need to take this element very seriously. I have many stories of exceptional teachers who knew this implicitly, and I witness examples of caring, empathetic staff members doing their best to support kids every day at Glendale School. My career continues to provide opportunities to witness some pretty incredible people effectively supporting kids with challenges.

Prior to my first tour of duty at Glendale as its school counselor four years ago, I spent eight years working exclusively with kids from at-risk environments in a congregated special education context. In Alberta the Department of Education designates these kids under code 42- those manifesting severe emotional/behavioral difficulties... I just coded them as needing someone to believe in them. I was dumbfounded at the levels of resilience these kids displayed, and profoundly saddened at the same time as a result of being forced to know what they were overcoming on some days just to make it to school at all. I took the long way home many days during those eight years. At the same time, I was repeatedly encouraged by my exposure to levels of with-it-ness in my colleagues that were off the charts when dealing with these kids' stories.

One such story popped into my thoughts recently as I was conducting a lacrosse coaching clinic and telling some stories about a former colleague, Dan McDonald. Dan was an accomplished hockey coach, and a very effective mentor for young people in sport and in education. You can read more about him in  another post- We need schools where "everybody knows your name." Back in those days Dan taught in our behavior program for ninth and tenth grade kids.

One day as Dan tells the story, a young girl arrived at school in a particular state of anxiety. She was pregnant, and the world was weighing heavily on her... that much was obvious. Never judgmental, Dan and his support staff watched her closely that afternoon, looking for any clue that may help tell her story that particular day. In the gentle conversations that ensued it became apparent that the girl was at her wits end with life in general, and she was planning to get "loaded" that Friday night... to drink and smoke her sorrows away. As the day wore on, and the staff became increasingly convinced that this young girl was serious, Dan came up with the best 'think-on-your-feet' plan he could; he told the girl she wasn't going to do that.

The response was painfully predictable... "yes I am!", the girl said. Dan reiterated, "no you're not," and she responded, "what are you going to do about it?" Without really knowing what he was going to do if he was being totally honest, Dan blurted out the first thing that came to his mind; he said to one of the support staff members, "Ethel, what are we going to do about it?" Her response was equally off-the-cuff... "write her a note," she said. So Dan did just that; he wrote her a note indicating all of those reasons why she should not get loaded as she seemed so intent to do that particular Friday night. She took the note, left for the weekend, and they didn't give it another thought beyond adding it to the generalized concern they felt for their students every Friday night.

Flash-forward about a year...
The girl in question had left the school to care for her newborn baby, and as often happened, one day she came back to the school to visit with her child. Dan and his staff never turned these kids away when this happened; it was as if they had a homing instinct that brought them back, and it was important that they were accepted and welcomed. This visit was a bit different, however. They were talking and holding the baby, getting caught-up with the goings-on of the last year or so in the young girl's life, but the conversation went on for much longer than was usually the case. An hour or so after she arrived, when most of what was usually talked about had already been talked about, Dan sensed there may be something else this girl needed, so he asked exactly that... "not that we are rushing you away or anything, but is there something else you need today, because we really should get back to what we were doing." The girl started crying and simply said, "yes, I need another note."

Never underestimate the power of small, seemingly insignificant acts of empathetic caring... you might be the only one in a young person's life who took the time to perform them.

Saturday 6 April 2013

The story behind the story...

A Chinese hanzi is often made up of multiple characters to create a unique meaning. The hanzi above is constructed of different characters that individually represent ears, eyes, undivided attention and heart. A beautiful alternative definition of the verb to listen is created... to listen means to hear with your heart; to be totally engaged and focused on understanding deeper meanings behind what we hear.

Every day I am reminded how important it is to listen to student`s stories. I am fortunate to have time during the school day to hear with my heart as I listen to the real reasons why kids end up in the office talking to me. Like the young man in this clip, sometimes kids just need an opportunity to be honest and real so we can understand their struggles better.

In our school we don`t think of a trip to the office as a punitive thing. We think of it as a resiliency building thing. An office referral is one of four resiliency pathways (as we call them) within our school that kids travel down depending on the nature of their challenge on any given day. An office visit more often than not means some adverse behavior would have been displayed.

When kids arrive in the office to speak with us, we've already heard about the behavior story that got them there; what we need to know is the story behind that story, and there always is one. We need to hear this story so we can begin to re-frame the student's challenge. What has happened has already happened, but more often than not, we don't want it to happen again. If we can find out the story behind the story, we can begin supporting the student by focusing forward and working on 'bounce back' strategies that build a more resilient child who will know how to handle a similar challenge differently and more effectively in the future.

For kids to truly feel a sense of belonging at school, we absolutely must be empathetic to the story that lies under the surface of what we think we know about their problematic behavior. Sometimes kids behave in ways that really confuse and upset those around them. I believe in many cases of adverse behavior, what kids are really doing is giving us a test; a test to see if we'll still be available for them the day after they've given us their best (which is actually their worst) behavioral routine. 

I don't believe that kids come to school with intent to make others miserable, or to make their day more difficult, but when it appears to be the case, I do believe they are simply choosing us on that particular day to see if we'll be able to take it, and if we'll be available the next day to perhaps take it again until a trusting relationship evolves and all of a sudden it's not necessary anymore. Being chosen for this test is a backhanded compliment. We are ultimately hardest on those we're closest to in life because we know their love and care for us in unconditional; we know they'll stick with us in the difficult times. If you are chosen for the test, what it really means is that a child has some reason to believe you've got what it takes to love and care for them despite the stress and pain they will share with you that makes it so difficult for them to function effectively in school.

Will you be ready when a child chooses you?