As director of a non-profit agency that works with the local school district in providing supplemental programming for children who are homeless, one of my job responsibilities is playing the role of principal of a small school. When there are problems with a child that require a “heavy” beyond the classroom teacher, those concerns fall to me.
I recently had one of those “principal” days, the capstone of a series of several days during which one girl and a group of others, all about 13 years old, were at odds. How trouble started depends on whom you believe. One version is that a Hispanic girl addressed a group of African-American girls with racial slurs. Was she provoked? Who knows? But the response was dramatic, with fists threatening to fly and an immediate her-versus-us dynamic. While control was maintained at school, the bus was another matter.
And so the next day we arranged alternate transportation to separate children while going to and from school. With our counselor, conversation continued about making good choices in the ways we respond to others. Participants agreed to back down—until the next time they were provoked, when they were pretty sure they would take whatever retaliatory action deemed necessary.
After repeated bad bus behavior topped off by disrespectful interaction with a staff member one morning at breakfast, I eventually joined the classroom of these girls, whose teacher was reviewing her expectations for the day. I added my two cents. The teacher was concluding with the wisdom that while we cannot control the words or actions of another, we can control our own.
Although they had been asked to listen, the girls were eager to interrupt with finger-pointing and declarations of innocence. Unable or unwilling to contain their complaints any longer, two girls—the Latina and one African American—jumped out of their seats, headed toward each other. The taller girl was right next to me, giving me the clear job of restraining her.
Meanwhile, back in my office, three mothers had just arrived from the domestic-violence shelter where they were staying. (Give them credit for being concerned about the problems we had been having.) One, the mother of the girl I had just restrained, had herself that morning threatened the small Latina should she again mess with any of her children. Another was the mother of a girl involved with the embattled group. The third was the mother of an 8-year old boy involved only as a bystander. All were disturbed by what they had been told the Hispanic girl had said.
We talked about a lot, including the fact that both girls involved in the attempted fighting that morning would not be continuing at our school. They would be helped with enrollment elsewhere, but we cannot accommodate children who, after instruction and warnings, are unwilling to cooperate with adults. We also cannot tolerate volatility that creates an unsafe environment, especially for our students, many of whom are already primary or secondary victims of physical abuse.
I tell this personal story to raise some broader questions. How do children learn to hate each other—and distrust authority—so quickly? After just a day at school together, one girl used racial epithets, while others tried to diffuse complaints about them by accusing our agency of racism—never minding that the majority of our current students and many of our staff were of their same race.
Every teenager is probably in emotional pain, to one extent or another. These children are likely in more pain than others. Being in pain, do they empathize with others? No, rather they go on to inflict pain. To exercise self-control and “take” a rude comment or put up with a disapproving look is not in the realm of their experience. Admittedly, to survive some of them have had to be tough. But to succeed in a world full of expectations of respect, appropriate verbal responses and restraint from impulses to physically lash out, they will need to learn what we are teaching at Positive Tomorrows.
Our behavioral theme this year is “Be Cool.” Don’t be emotionally hot (exploding in response to others) or cold (holding your feelings in). Take the time to cool down and express your response clearly, telling what you want and don’t want from a person who has angered you. Seek adult help or intervention if needed.
In addition to being cool, we are introducing our students to the “I Care Rules” (found in the book Starting Small by the Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center). Although not religious instruction, doesn’t this list sound like a Jesus-way of interacting with others?
–We listen to each other.
–Hands are for helping, not hurting.
–We care about each other’s feelings.
–We use “I Care” language.
–We are responsible for what we say and do.
Whatever else is learned in our classrooms, learning to be cool and to treat others with care are life skills that are far more important than most any other lesson.
While I don’t hold parents entirely responsible for their children’s actions, much of how children treat others is learned behavior from observations of the adults in their lives. Let’s show our children—and those we may influence in church or other family or community settings—how to care for themselves and others today, sowing seeds of examples that might eventually result in a harvest of behavior that breaks through defensive, destructive patterns of interaction and paves the way for more positive tomorrows.
Karen Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.