Yesterday was Pearl Harbor Day and in honor of the date I participated in a re-enactment of the famous event. For this production I played the harbor and a five year old girl from the class next to mine played the part of the attacking force.
When I arrived in her class at the behest of her teacher she was curled up on the floor making loud, odd noises. Her teacher told me she had asked her to stop, and had redirected her to sit in time out but the student had refused.
Normally faced with this situation I would offer her a choice of standing up and walking out with me or I would carry her. However I had left my class alone so I simply reached down and picked her up.
That is when the re-creation began.
She kicked me, she screamed, she hit me, she punched me, she scratched me, she reached for the pen in my pocket but I blocked her from getting that (see below) when we arrived in my room, the longest thirty foot stroll of the year so far, I told her she could sit in a chair while I continued teaching. As soon as I sat her down she jumped up to run away, I grabbed her and sat her back in the chair and reaching with one available hand pulled my chair over next to hers so I could hold her in her seat. I did so with a containment hold, circling my arms around her forming a ‘ring’ that she could bounce off but not leave. She continued to scratch, hit and try to escape. I mentioned to her as matter of fact as I could, that when she stopped trying to get away I would let her sit by herself in the chair. Then I went on with my math lesson (thank goodness it was math and not reading!)
Her screaming continued at a very high level, several of my students complained that she was hurting their ears. A couple of them, to their credit, gently tried to talk her out of her tantrum. One of my students actually said, “You may as well give up, he won’t.”
I have long enjoyed a reputation for dealing well with the tough kids. Well, OK, “enjoyed” is not the right word. But there is something in my manner that can calm them, at least after twenty minutes or so. I think it is just that I seem unflappable. I’m not, but I seem to be. I also give choices. I rarely tell a child “You must do this.” I tell them, “Here are your choices.” Of course I never offer a choice I am not willing to deliver on. Hence my common offer of, “You can walk or I will carry you.” There is no question about whether they are leaving the room. Still, I think children are not given enough opportunities to learn about making choices and living with the consequences. It is a critical life-skill.
I am not magic, I have had my failures, many more than I care to remember, like the kid who tried to stab me in the neck with a sharp pencil (see above). I am always cautious if they have a sharp object in their hand.
And, as in this case, it is sometimes true I do not have time to offer a choice, we needed to get back. My own class this year has more than it’s share of volatile children.
Back to Pearl; the Arizona, my math lesson, was a smoldering wreck, in all it took about twenty minutes. The little girl finally calmed, or became mesmerized by my command of the second grade math curriculum, and I removed what was left of my arms. She sat quietly until it was time to go to lunch, went to lunch with us and then returned to her class, where we all had cookies and milk and lived happily ever after. No.
I would like to say that this is an unusual situation but it is not. A colleague of mine at another school shared that she has initiated paperwork on five students in her class who are likely improperly placed and possibly emotionally disturbed. She says all have exhibited dangerous, angry behaviors. This is not just some teacher – she is Nationally Board Certified. As a leader in my association I am constantly hearing stories about children endangered by the erratic actions of other students. Teachers too are vulnerable. A good friend of mine, one of the gentlest men I know, was attacked, punched repeatedly, by an angry ten year old yesterday.
Angry children appear to be epidemic.
Where have they all come from and why now?
I have a couple theories and they are problems not easily fixed.
First, I believe we have sent a message that anything can happen and it can happen here and now. Instant news and reality TV make situations that were once seen as aberrant, commonplace. Children are exposed to far too much information they simply do not need and it multiplies the stress upon them exponentially. To put it simply, it scares them.
Second, I believe we have abdicated good parenting skills both voluntarily and involuntarily. I know that most families cannot make a good living without at least two full-time incomes if not one of them also having a second job. I am not indicting them for this, it is a financial reality that I myself lived through for many years. Because so much of their time is consumed by work it is easy to allow children to turn to TV or computer games as a source of at least partial day care while parents are getting dinner or doing the shopping and actual day care is a 6am to 6pm reality for many children.
Finally, and this may be the most worrisome for me because it contains an element of the unknown, I think we are doing something damaging to our children that we have not yet identified. It is my worst case, unintended consequences scenario. It may be the massive rise in microwaves passing through our bodies with the inception of new wireless technology. Or it might be additives that we are using to supplement or enhance food resources. It could be simply the increase of very young children being exposed to electronic media that is contributing to the rise in autism spectrum disorders. The haunting part of this problem may just be it is a combination of all these factors and something yet unrecognized.
I do not mean to say that all children are out of control. Most of my class this year are hard-working, involved students who love to learn. Unfortunately one unruly child can effectively disable any lesson, two or three can make the room chaotic and four or five, not unheard of in our current enlarged classrooms, can cause the best of teachers to believe the whole world has gone insane.
This is my fear: We are responsible for this. When I say it haunts me, I am not crediting it sufficiently, I wake up some nights wondering about it, I have dreamt horrific dreams about scores of angry children that I cannot reach. I fear they are legion and I know it is our fault.