Oct 14, 2012

The Key

Working with kids who have behavior challenges is never, ever dull. So when I had a couple of quiet days in a row, I knew that there would soon be a volcanic eruption. That eruption came early in the week and lasted several days. What follows below is a true story from my classroom. I share it (and plan to share more each week) because I want you to know that there are many young people whom our society seems to fear, or whose behavior leads them to a place of punishment (sometimes directly to prison)...But those behaviors happen for a reason. It is my job--and the job of my colleagues--to figure out why.  So when you read these stories, don't just gasp (the way my husband does) at the shocking nature of the behavior. Don't just shake your head and mutter about "kids today" the way a lot of people do. Think about what a kid must be going through, or what might be happening in their minds, that led them to act a certain way. Really, when you figure out the puzzle of why a behavior is occurring it changes the way you see a person. Empathy is a very powerful thing.

True story:
This week a girl was in study hall and she was very disruptive. She has this enormous belly laugh that made me smile when I first heard it (hard not to laugh along!) But she can roll that laugh for a full hour, non-stop. Her friends seem to enjoy getting her going, making sure that her laugh is all anyone can hear anywhere! Forget studying, thinking, talking, anything! When that laugh is roaring, there is absolutely no way anyone can focus. So she was laughing in study hall and wouldn't move away from her friends. She wouldn't quiet down. She refused adamantly and was referred to the Intervention Center to calm down. When the escort came to get her, she refused to go. Eventually, all other students in study hall were asked to vacate so that staff could try to calm her without any peers goading her on. It was the last period of the day, and when she finally calmed down her mom was called, and she was escorted off school property for the rest of the day. She was told she'd need to spend a day in the Intervention Center to problem-solve and get ready to return to study hall again at some point.

The day after her study hall disruption, she was in my room. She sat quietly in a study carrel at first, completing work that she was missing from class. Another student sat next to her in a separate carrel. (He had been referred to my class the previous day and had vandalized a wall pretty severely. He was doing a great job of earning his way back to class by processing through the incident, and completing his schoolwork.) The girl had a house key on a lanyard. She twirled it the way a lifeguard twirls their whistle...round her finger and back again, round her finger and back again. Eventually that twirling got boring, so she started whipping it around the wall of her study carrel, listening to it thump on the other side. But there was that boy on the other side, so the key kept whizzing by him as it hit the wall next to him. After a couple of near misses to his body, he did what I would have done: when the key came whipping over to his side of the wall he snatched it. The key came off the lanyard and he tossed it toward me. Now, I am totally uncoordinated and clutzy. That key may have been aimed at me, but I didn't see it coming until it hit the floor at my feet.

The key sat there for a moment and the girl said to me, "You need to give that to me."

I said, "No, I don't."

Almost immediately, she got up out of her seat. She headed toward me, and I thought she was going to get the key. She looked up at me mid-step and said, "You need to know that I do fight boys. All the time." As quick as a flash she changed direction and was leaning into the study carrel of the boy who'd been sitting next to her. There she began punching him repeatedly. He sat there, still, as she pommeled him; and I tried to maneuver in between them. Since they were both in a very small, confined space, I couldn't work my way in there. I had to grab her from behind and pull, all the while hollering for an associate who works in the room next door. (My own associate was escorting another student who'd had an earlier crisis back to class.) Help came quickly and together we separated the girl from the boy. I called my administrator on a walkie talkie to ask her what should be done next.

The consequence was that we would call the girl's mom to let her know we were sending her home. Physical violence will not be tolerated at school. Her actions led to one of the very few out-of-school suspensions doled out in my building.  My associate escorted her off school property, and she was instructed to stay off the property for a total of three days. I tried calling her mom but got her voice mail. My administrator tried calling later and was able to get through. The girl's mom was very understanding and supportive, but also let my principal know that her family has come upon really hard times. They've lost their housing voucher and are being evicted from their home. They expect to be homeless by the end of the week. At this point, they don't know where they will live or how they will get by.

And so I think about it....how would I feel if I was a young teenager and knew that within days I'd be homeless? What if I'd finally found a way to laugh out loud and was told to be quiet? What if I felt so scared and frustrated about my life that I'd look for any way at all to let some of those feelings out--even going so far as punching someone?

For sure, the reason for the behavior does not excuse it. No matter what is going on in her life, it is not okay to punch someone who was just sitting next to her trying to avoid being hit by a key. There is no place for physical violence in my room, in our school, or in our community. 

But now I can see why it happened. Now I can begin to talk to her about less harmful ways of expressing her fear and frustration. I don't know if it will work, but I have to try--not only to help with her behavior, but to see if there is anything at all our school can do to help her family through this hard time. We start our problem-solving journey tomorrow. Keep us in your thoughts and send some positive energy to Iowa for us--especially to her. Her family needs all they can get.


  1. How's the intervention been, Jen? As I read this post, all that kept going through my head was "I'd never know how to handle a situation like that." I say that because educators seem to put themselves at risk when they touch students. Is the law different when you're working with a SPED population? Or is having to physically handle a student directed by specific circumstances? I pray her family's found some relief and that the young girl is doing better.

  2. Ezzy, we are trained to use specific methods of handling situations. Putting hands on a student is an absolute last resort, and really can only happen when another student is in danger. We have to be certified in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention in my current district. It is a specific method of trying to give students verbal directives, use evasive self-defense techniques to prevent injury, or specific moves that get students to disengage without causing them injury. The problem is that we don't have to practice those moves very often, and unless you have lots of practice they aren't automatic. It's hard to remember it all when there is a student reacting aggressively.

    As for my student...well, her housing situation got better. But she had another episode of physical violence. We are still working on how to help her understand that her fists are not the most effective means of communication. It's a hard lesson to teach.


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