Fly on a Sticky Wicket

A second grader, hands still so small they remind you of the baby they grew out of not so long ago, eager to please, eyes full of wonder and mirth, proud to show her parent some of her schoolwork, excited because the parent is here, in her classroom. It is a special day, out of the ordinary. As she moves to retrieve her journal from its crate, a classmate in the front row sneers under his breath, “What do you think this is? A second open house?”

The parent in this scenario is me. The second grader is my daughter. The classmate in the front row is – rude? A bully? Jealous? The teacher in me found it hard not to reprimand this rude comment. The mother in me found it hard not to put this punk in his place. But because my daughter thankfully didn’t seem to hear it, because it wasn’t my place, and because it wasn’t my charge of children (ie my classroom) – I stepped back to assess the situation.

All teachers know that nearly all off-base comments are based on some insecurity hidden deep within the offending student. In the heat of a disruptive moment in one’s own classroom, it’s hard to remember or appreciate this, but as a parent privy to only this one comment and able to scoot back out the door I’d only just peeked into, it was easy to presuppose why this student may have made such a snarky comment.

As jazzed as my daughter was at my visit, there was a vacuum of other parents who couldn’t be in the room right then. Perhaps this young man was upset that his parent(s) couldn’t be there. Perhaps his parents have jobs that prevent a midday visit. Perhaps he’s angry or sad that his parents would never think to come into his classroom. Perhaps the obvious joy and pride in my daughter’s eyes reflecting in mine is something he can’t bear to see because this is the only time he will.

Perhaps it is unfair for me to make such presuppositions.

After many years of seeing students in action, however, I know that those students who you would least like to embrace are exactly the ones who need it most.

Not an easy task when they make hurtful comments, strike out at those around them, and have no other framework of operating to follow. There is no easy answer. Remember, I didn’t say anything . . .

But while there may be a reason for it, such behavior cannot be condoned. Had my child heard this hurtful comment, her joy would’ve been squashed as well. Her fragile nature, which I’d come into the classroom to build up, would’ve been diminished.

How do we support such children without discouraging others around them?

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  1. I’m not sure this is actually an answer to your question, especially since I’m not at all qualified to provide an answer, but this was the first thing that came to mind when you asked “how do we support such children without discouraging others around them”. My son was one of those children – the one always disrupting the class; always ready with an inappropriate comment, or a creating a scene in an otherwise quiet situation. I won’t spend lots of words on explaining or trying to justify, other than to say “severe ADHD” and “chronically low self-esteem”. He pushed people away, because he was so desperate to be accepted. He wanted everyone else to prove how unworthy he was by rejecting him. Sadly, almost everyone did exactly that, including some of his own family members.

    What worked? In a way that wasn’t disruptive to the other kids in his class? The short answer was humor. In our elementary (and then middle school and high school) years, we came across a wide variety of teaching methods, both inside and outside the classroom. It didn’t take us long to catch on that humor was the sharpest tool in our toolbox. We weren’t the ones that made this discovery. It was actually through observing a particularly skilled teacher repeatedly use humor towards him when he was being disruptive. By responding with humor, she would (a) provide him with individual attention, (b) create an atmosphere of fun, rather than scolding, and (c) bring him INTO the circle of children, instead of excluding him.

    Obviously, this took an enormous amount of patience and perseverance on her part, but the end result was that there were less and less instances of disruption, because he had begun believing (even a tiny bit) that he was the same as the other kids (rather than freakishly different and flawed). We were extremely fortunate to learn the value of humor early in his educational journey, and it continued to serve us well. We were blessed to have been paired with an exceptional teacher, who was willing to expend the extra effort required, especially since it is much quicker and easier to simply remove the offending student. By deflecting his inappropriate behavior with humor, she created an atmosphere of acceptance. By using humor, she negated his intended result (rejection and scolding and disruption), and substituted affection and silliness. In fact, the more silly and ridiculous, the better. It had the effect of instantly putting smiles on everyone’s faces, including hers. He quit being the problem child, and became her special buddy.

    Again, I’m well aware that not every teacher has the time or patience for this approach, and even then, we knew how fortunate we were. That was about twenty-five years ago, and yes, eventually that unruly and disruptive young boy grew into a responsible and dependable adult and father. Who still uses humor every day, especially when dealing with his own kids. Humor worked. It sounds simple, but there was nothing simple about how it was being deployed. It required patience, patience, patience and a willing heart. But humor is probably the one thing that turned everything around for us.

    To take it one step further, his (very enlightened) teacher used to tell us the power of “opposite”. If your first instinct is to scold or scowl, do the opposite. For instance, in your scenario, when the young student had the inappropriate “second open house” comment, I could imagine you sidling over close to him and whispering something along the lines of “Right? It looks like maybe I’m the only one that got the memo! Guess that makes me the weirdo parent in this picture!” and then laugh and smile directly into his eyes and quickly move away. By doing so, you acknowledge him, deploy humor, and deflate his intended result, all without your daughter even being aware of this happening. Obviously, this would not be any person’s first response to his inappropriate comments. And obviously, there is always the chance the situation could escalate if he were to respond again in an inappropriate way. All possibilities. But there is also the chance that he would be taken off-guard, feel the warmth of your smile (which might salve his most-likely wounded little heart), and would feel included (by virtue of your personal attention). And no one would be the wiser. I’m not trying to say that humor works in every situation, but as a possible tool against the disruption and discord, we found humor to be an invaluable resource.

    As I said before, I’m in no way qualified to answer the question that was posed. I’ve never been an academic, nor have I ever been faced with the challenge of tending to dozens of young minds all at once in a classroom. My only point of experience has been from the perspective of being the mom of the problem child. For us, humor worked the best.

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    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  October 11, 2014

      I sensed there was a very good reason for this child’s comment. While it bothered me, I knew it wasn’t unfounded. You’ve expressed that beautifully in sharing your own son’s experiences. The fact that you’ve never been ‘an academic’ as you said isn’t essential. For, while I don’t have the answer either, I sense that it is very closely linked to knowing these children intimately – knowing their inner workings and motivations, the places they have deficits and holes to be filled.

      And your possible solution of humor? Brilliant. While it does seem counterintuitive to josh in the face of perceived misbehavior, it certainly would defuse the situation. And redirect in a nonthreatening way. Sending a clear message while giving lighthearted attention.

      You’ve given me even more to think about! Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.

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      • After leaving this comment, I was actually worried that I might have offended (you, or any other academic or parent who has been faced with the unpleasant ramifications of a chronically-unruly child). I should also have said that as a parent, our first instinct is always to protect our own child’s experience, so even though my first instinct was to respond with “humor” in theory, in practice, I might have behaved differently. We do everything we can to protect our children, even when, sometimes, that means protecting them from disruption or unkindness around them. Thanks for understanding that my response of “humor” was one that worked with us often, but there were plenty of times it didn’t, too. But at least it gave us a safe place to begin.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I would have probably responded the same way you did by ignoring the situation. Something’s are hard to ignore though.

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  3. This struck a deep chord with me Jen. I am in total agreement with your reaction and actions. The book I’m working on is all about this. Your daughter and surely all your girls are blessed to have you for a mom.

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    • Jennifer Butler Basile

       /  October 11, 2014

      Yes, this does tie in with your newest book, doesn’t it? I wasn’t sure how to react. It’s uncanny how I could remember so clearly the feeling such a comment would elicit if directed at me. My first thought was to protect my daughter, which I won’t always be able to, nor always should, do. But there are always two sides to each story, as they say.

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      • If left to my pure impulse I would have said something to the child. My reason would have at one time said I should direct my anger at the teacher. Today my energy spent towards self control would have led me down your path. Happily.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jennifer Butler Basile

         /  October 11, 2014

        There is so much students, parents would consider a teacher responsible for in the classroom. The reality is, there is so much they miss – not from neglect or ignorance, but the sheer magnitude of all that occurs in one day. Hopefully they would be able to steer all children done the path that leads to each and every student’s best self and safest environment. The child may not know any better, right? The teacher is the protector.

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      • Excellent point. Parents don’t always understand a teachers perspective and how much more of a challenge it is to manage an entire classroom of individuals.

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