Don’t you love it when something happens in the course of your day-to-day life that shakes up your perspective, and causes you to question what you thought you knew? I love that. I think for educators, this ought to be at the heart of what we call reflective practice. More than thinking about how the math lesson went, reflecting on the connections we make, and the curious dynamics of student relationships could be a goal of reflective practice.
Recently I had an experience with a young student that caused me to question what I thought I knew, and that definitely shook up my perspective. When engaged in a reading activity, she began to react negatively and withdraw. I suspected this was to cover up her weakness with language – better to tap out that to let me know she can’t read. So I offered help and support in a variety of different ways, thinking that if she felt safe and supported she might take the risk and try reading. I was patient and calm. I used surrogate tapping, where I tapped on myself in response to the upset she was displaying, and just held the space for her to find her way. I added love and thought that would create safety, but instead the behaviours escalated to the point of violent outbursts and her actually escaping to run down the street. How could patience, calm, understanding and love be the ‘wrong’ approach?
Then I remembered another young student from my first year of teaching. He had thrown some classroom materials around, breaking things, during French class. I suspected he was frustrated and feeling like he would never be able to do anything in French, so I decided to add love. I was calm, patient and understanding when I suggested ways we could correct the situation. He looked me square in the face and took off running. After a dramatic chase scene, the principal finally caught him and suspended him from school for a few days.
This brings me to my theory of a child’s window of vulnerability. I think that for certain kids, too much love is overwhelming. For whatever reason – home dynamics, personality, trauma, or some other version of kid armor – it is unbearable to have bad met with good. Bad behaviours have predictable bad consequences, and there is a safety and predictability to that cycle. If I push too far into the uncharted waters of love land, the child does not have the capacity to understand or receive it. Their body’s alarm system sends them into fight or flight to protect their system from becoming overwhelmed with love. Maybe this is related to trauma-informed teaching, and to the research on adverse childhood experience (ACEs)? Certainly means more reading and research for me.
Meanwhile, I am grateful. Maybe these experiences will give me some insight on how to reach those ‘unreachable’ kids. Maybe I was naïve to think that positive, loving energy would always be helpful; in hindsight I think that it would be more respectful to learn how to navigate the child’s window of vulnerability. I wonder how the school will label them and to what extent those will help provide useful resources. Whenever a situation becomes highly emotionally charged, or by contrast is completely devoid of emotional engagement, maybe that’s a clue to me to shelve my good intentions and get real about what that kid might need.