Thursday, November 27, 2008

How to win friends and influence second graders

For a long time I have been wanting to write about Tyshaun, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it. I have been his teacher for thirteen months of school now, and we have a tumultuous relationship. He is one of the main reasons I decided to loop up to second grade with my class this year, because he is a student with a lot of sweetness hidden under a tough exterior, and because he is very, very vulnerable to many things that entice him now, but could hurt him in the long run. The idea of letting him go at the end of last year, of putting him into the hands of a new (though very competent) teacher, was too much for me to stomach.

Here is an introduction to Tyshaun, who is much more complicated than I’ll probably ever be able to show.

Tyshaun approaches most new people, and most transitions, with a growl and a scowl. When learning specialists come to work with him, his face darkens with displeasure and he frowns deeply, slamming a folder on the table. It can challenge even the most seasoned of educators to be greeted like this, day after day, and still treat him positively and optimistically.

When he comes in the room each morning, I greet him with a cheerful “good morning,” and I have no idea what response I’ll get. He may smile shyly and come over to tell me something exciting he made or discovered in the before-school program; he may ignore me as he stomps across the classroom to his desk; or he may answer me as if I were the last person on earth he wants to talk to.

Tyshaun is often oppositional and sneaky, and has a hard time not taking things that he wants, even if they belong to other people. He has difficulty with expressive and receptive language, word retrieval, and processing information; reading and writing are very hard for him, and he needs a lot of help with math too. He is tall for his grade (because he repeated first grade) and walks more like a tough teenager than a second grader. There is a vulnerable little boy inside him, who he keeps tightly under wraps nearly all of the time.

There is nothing Tyshaun wants more than to please the people around him. Give him an order, and he will openly defy you; motivate him with positive feedback and he will rise to your highest expectations. Talk to him like he is a child, and he will be unyielding before your demands; consult with him as if he were an adult and he will respond with maturity and thoughtfulness. Part of the reason I like him so much is the challenge of figuring out how to approach him, and the amusement and pleasure I get out of seeing how easy it can be to get him to do the right thing once you figure out the secret to relating to him. You have to work for it with Tyshaun.

One small example from last year: we wanted to get Tyshaun to meet with the school therapist, a white woman. (The poor guy is surrounded by white women. What I wouldn’t give for a black male therapist.) I knew he would be reluctant and possibly hostile toward her; I also knew he would end up loving his one-on-one time with her, and that it would be really, really good for him.

She came by one afternoon to check in with me about a time that would be good to meet with him. I decided that the more autonomy I gave him in this decision, the better.

I introduced the two of them, and told him, “Tyshaun, Ms. Larson’s job is to talk to kids about how they are feeling and help them figure out what to do when they don’t feel so good. I know you’ve been talking to me about how you haven’t been feeling that good sometimes lately, and I thought you might like to meet with her. What do you think about that – does it seem like a good idea to you?”

He thought about it for a minute and then nodded quickly, carefully veiling his enthusiasm.

“Great!” Ms. Larson said. “When would be a good time for me to come get Tyshaun?”

“One day at lunch might be good,” I answered. “Tyshaun, how would Thursday at lunchtime be for you?” I knew that Thursday lunchtime was the time Ms. Larson had available for him, but I wanted him to feel like he had some choice in the matter.

“Um, how about Wednesday?” he asked. “Wednesday would be better for me.”

I smiled inside. Tyshaun’s Wednesdays were indistinguishable from his Thursdays; he was letting me know that giving him some say in when he would like to meet with her had been the right thing to do – he wanted influence over what happened in his day.

“Unfortunately, I’m not here on Wednesdays,” Ms. Larson answered.

“Oh, that’s too bad!” I said. “Tyshaun, since she’s not here on Wednesdays, do you think you could do it on Thursday?”

He nodded. He had been consulted, we had let him know his opinion mattered to us, and as long as he felt that regard, he would be flexible and open to trying this new thing out. That’s the secret to Tyshaun – if you can just approach him in the right way, you can move mountains, but it’s often easier said than done.

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