I read a bit of Louis Armstrong’s autobiography to the kids the other day, the part where he gets arrested at 12 years old for shooting blanks from a gun and goes to the Colored Waifs home. They told him, “You’re a bad boy running around with bad kids” and locked him up in that reform school. There a music teacher, Mr. Peter Davis, took notice of him and moved him up from first triangle to cornet and leader of the boys band and his destiny began to unroll in front of him. Given a tool to express everything inside of him— which, in turns out, was a lot of soul and freedom and humor and joyful abandon—that “bad boy” spread more light and happiness around the world than just about any other major figure in the 20th century!
Being a teacher, I know a lot about bad boys (I was one— and still am!) and girls (two daughters, a mischievous granddaughter and the thousand plus kids I’ve taught). I know that certain behaviors can make my life in the classroom miserable and affect other kids as well who want to get on with the business of learning. And thus, you can’t excuse it.
Punishment or threats or rewards or kicking kids out to another poor teacher in another school can help stabilize the situation and all may be sometimes necessary. But it will never solve the problem. At the root of bad behavior is a kid who feels disconnected— from his surroundings, from his classmates, from him or herself. Hundreds of ways to feel disconnected, but only one solution— connection. Whether its working on integrating the body or harmonizing the nervous system or quieting the mind or feeling useful to and valued by at least one other person, the challenge is to identify the source and work on healing. I’m sure kids are exhausted by even good-hearted teachers constantly calling their name or taking them to task, but they get stuck in patterns where they work against their own best interests and need help to find their way out.
At our school, we have a Student Support Team when kids whose behavior cries “Help!” calls for a meeting with the parents. But instead of the scolding we might come to expect by the dreaded call from the school, the format begins and ends with mutual love and concern. It starts with a child’s strengths and there hasn’t been a child yet who doesn’t have an impressive list when you sit down and look at it. Then come concerns, strategies for remediation, outside help possibilities, timelines and such. But at the end, it comes back to talking to a kid like this:
“We had such a wonderful time talking about you and your strengths. And we’re all a little worried because you keep doing things that make it hard for us to see those strengths and hard for you to grow them yet stronger. We don’t want to change you. We don’t want to fix you. We don’t want to make you into our notion of the perfect student. We want to help you get through the obstacles that keep others from seeing your great talents and character and keep you from seeing them yourself. We want to find out how to help those talents blossom and how to help you get through those obstacles.”
This is not New Age babble. It’s the beginning of the only thing that really works, showing a child you value her in spite of the way she is driving you crazy! That you want more of her and that behavior is giving less. That she can’t show all of her great thoughts and ideas and feelings without doing the work of learning how to read and write, how to play music and dance, how to express herself through art or drama or teamwork on a sports team.
Think about it. For every sigh and scold, add a smile and affirmation. There’s no greater sight in the world than a child perpetually scolded suddenly being praised for something he or she did worthy of praise. The smile that emerges on their face as you bless them is a power greater than a thousand suns.