The following is an excerpt from my Fulbright inquiry project. I am currently working on a way to best share the handbook in it’s entirety. Hopefully this anecdote from the handbook gives a sense of the work I am eager to continue.
“School is generally understood to deliver instructional content to children, arming them with the knowledge and competencies required for a future in the job market. Teachers often believe this work is neutral, shaped by objective standards rather than subjective values. But schools make people. In the everyday work of classrooms, social identities are fomented and cemented in the minds and bodies of young people. This is active political work, cultural work – not neutral, passive work.”
– Carla Shalaby, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School
When a school community listens, reflects and responds restoratively…
He came in fuming. Literally. Jordan* was a ball of building energy, condensed inside a light brown, five year old’s body. It didn’t take a honeymoon phase before he showed us his true struggles and needs. Jordan was bursting with needs from day one. Initially, it was his disregard for any structure or direct instruction. He wanted to do his own thing. When asked to follow along with the class, his frustration was ignited. The more redirections from the kindergarten teacher, the more anger. Often, giving space didn’t quell the build up either. He was like a combustible steam engine and when it was time to blow, it was something! Guttural sounds and crashing objects could be heard from my office down the hall. The ensuing tantrum was never short lived. Almost always over thirty minutes of throwing, kicking, screaming, and fleeing – running down halls, up stairs and out of any space with four walls.
I was always on call for the tantrum. It happened often enough that it seemed my body had developed a tingling sensation during the quiet before the storm. I knew we didn’t have an answer for what Jordan needed. I knew that mostly, I just had was my body, my ability to get in between him and the potential of others being hurt. I also had time, albeit never enough. Time spent sitting with him, hugging him, holding him in effort to not let him hurt himself or others. Undershirts were sweat out, ties were torn and flying objects were dodged. Jordan’s emotional explosions were almost always non-verbal in that first year. De-escalation often took hours. At many points, we were in dire need of family support and often awaited mom or dad’s arrival to ensure his safety. Our team had our caring instincts, but not enough of a plan, or at least one we could rely upon. I was still operating under the assumption and internal and external pressure that I could and needed to “fix” everything.
The first time dad reluctantly came in to support it was clear that the work to fully support Jordan would have just as much to do with our parental engagement as it did with our one-to-one work with the kindergartener. His dad refused to sit down to talk. He stood by my office door, twitching with intensity. Also a ball of condensed energy, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by him. The thick scar on his face and deep grimace didn’t give off the notion that “we were in this together.” He never sat down that first meeting and provided no information about potential triggers or even a recognition of Jordan’s prior behavior at home or elsewhere.
By the end of his kindergarten year, after having daily conversations with mom and/or dad about struggles Jordan was having, I learned a few things. I learned that both parents cared deeply for Jordan, loved to make him laugh and wanted only the best for their first born child. I also learned that his mother and father were in the middle of a divorce. I learned that they both felt strongly the other’s approach to parenting was flawed. After a few more conversations in which I tried to sit, but he continued to remain standing, I learned Jordan’s father struggled in school, commenting that no one there really listened to him. By the end of that first year, he mentioned that he saw similarities between his own experiences and how his son was negotiating with school.
As a school, we still felt largely unprepared and ill-equipped for the emotional and physical outbursts. However, by the end of the year, Jordan had developed more of a relationship with one of his teachers, which allowed him to stay in class for larger portions of the day. Even so, when feeling triggered, the outbursts often still led to a classmate or teacher being kicked and/or pushed and classroom items being destroyed. That first year, he spent so much of his time out of class, either because he was triggered or as a disciplinary response to his outburst.
As Jordan grew older, the next year, our school response turned from unofficial calm down/reflection time to official in-house or out-of-school suspension time. As his familiarity with the school grew, his verbal responses also grew, but the high level tantrums continued. He became more harmful to the surrounding community. Mom and dad continued to respond. They continued to struggle to communicate with each other, but they never ceased to communicate with me or Jordan’s teachers. When we had a day or a couple days of calm in the class, we all celebrated, only to be let down shortly after by the next outburst. Through all of this, we were advocating for increased services as well as investigating the option of obtaining a special education distinction to guarantee these services – speech, occupational therapy, counseling. As we juggled all of the possible general education support options, our school still felt more services were critical. It ultimately took two years for dad to sign off. Once again, his own experience with school deeply influenced his desire to have Jordan classified with a special need, despite our push that he could always change it or reevaluate.
In this same timeframe, my implementation of restorative practices in the school building had started, which had a lot to do with the early conversations and struggles with Jordan and his parents. Meeting after meeting telling them that Jordan was not welcomed back in his classroom community reinforced the flawed, exclusionary approach we were taking. We did continue to emphasize that we would not kick Jordan out of our school, that we were always here for him. Although, at that time being there for him meant that our community wasn’t adapting to his needs, but rather, trying to force his compliance to what we were calling the community. If Jordan was a part of this community, the norms needed to adapt to fit his membership. As a school, we used a restorative lens to provide voice to those he harmed. However, it became clear that it was more than just circle guidelines and restorative conferences. We needed to dig deeper in to how our responses as educators impacted his ability to truly grow in our community.
Our ability to ultimately meet Jordan’s needs balanced on a reframing of how we saw misbehavior and how we managed our own impact as people trying to support him. Teachers that tried to be overly assertive further triggered him. When met with anxious energy and frustration, he turned up the response. When met with understanding, questioning and empathy, he was much easier to de-escalate. This same anxious energy educator’s often give off, which many times is channeled into power struggles with students, is a direct result of a lack of self reflection — an inability to place one’s own identity impact front and center.
My initial encounters with Jordan were made even worse by the way my identity as a White man in a position of power in the school impacted him and his father. Jordan was initially deeply skeptical of my motivation to support him. He saw me as someone that stepped in “when he was bad,” most likely reinforcing a feeling a failure, which left little hope but to fall deeper in to his tantrum. He also witnessed much of the tension during conversations I had with his father. I imagine his father was deeply skeptical of the reliability of my words of support and pleas for assistance — my never-ending refrain that it was only going to get better if “we all were working together and on the same page.” I imagine the disrespect dad felt in his own experiences in school guided much of our early interactions. My ability to hear and feel this from him was paramount in us growing together and ultimately supporting Jordan’s success.
Through dialogue and self-reflection, we became better equipped, as adults, to manage how we engaged with him. We co-developed, with the family, a multi-tired plan for his potential tantrums. Our team approach allowed us to not panic when something popped off, to focus on our own de-escalation, and then engage in more calm and productive ways. As my group of responders grew (teachers, dean of students, behavior support coordinator, social workers), we engaged with each other about our own triggers and mental health needs. We balanced who would respond and how. We pushed each other to remember the needs exhibited by the behavior and not get stuck in the reptilian emotions we naturally fall in to during moments of crisis. As adults, engaging with our own stories and emotions was everything.
Jordan later received a one-to-one paraprofessional that focused their support on building a relationship with him rather than authoritatively telling him what to do or not do. The Culture Support Team organized space for Jordan to connect with adults and fellow students — for him to form meaningful relationships. The team developed a buddy system with a fellow student that worked to calm Jordan down when initially triggered. We tried our best to call mom and dad about the positives and not just when we yearned for support.
In year three and four, Jordan’s dad and I would joke about him needing an unofficial title because he was at our school so much. He often stopped by my office in the morning with a big smile, wishing me and the team a good day. Mom started coming to family council meetings — our version of the PTA — and offering the myriad of skills and experiences she had developed in her own career as an educator. I imagine she had built up more confidence in her own identity in our school as more than just the “mom of the student who always had tantrums.”
In those last two years, the family’s participation in the school building wasn’t just for Jordan either. Jordan had a younger brother who also started at our school and who also struggled with instructional space, a classroom schedule and a new, at-home family structure. However, we now had a plan, a more restorative approach and a more developed view of what it means to be in community with others. We had done the work to recognize how malleable our school can be to students and families that have deep needs. We knew how to game plan and most importantly, we knew that the game plan starts and continues with our ability to look within. This past year, while I was living in Scotland, Jordan had his graduation from elementary school. During the ceremony he was honored by the school’s principal with the Award for Social and Emotional Growth. He is headed off to middle school with more smiles and far more relationships. He will continue to need support and I am sure he will continue to hit rough patches along the way, but a much more defined roadmap is in place, one that pulls him in rather than pushing him out.
I don’t share this story to point to a case of exceptionalism, but rather to acknowledge the collaborative work, thought and love that can be used to build relationships and student success. This active, political and cultural work is the approach we should be giving each of the individuals in our school building. Stepping back, starting with self, and approaching our school communities with a restorative lens can provide a space and voice for all and an impact that can change lives.
*Student’s name changed