Photo By: http://photography.ivanmcclellan.com/
Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion. ~Buddha
When babies cry everyone rushes to reveal what’s wrong and alleviate their stress. It’s somewhat of an instinct in our culture. We understand that the only way that baby can communicate a need to us; be it hunger, a necessary diaper change, fatigue or discomfort is to cry out. No one wants to hear a baby cry, so we respond quickly. Unfortunately, as a child begins to grow and learns the language, we assume that they know how to communicate their needs effectively, yet do they?
As an elementary teacher I have come to know that even though children have more vocabulary words when they enter school, they still do not know how to communicate their needs. Often, children cry out to get their meet needs, but all we see is defiance instead of their plea for help.
Bella is an adorable 1st grader who entered my classroom in September. I remember getting her kindergarten card and noting that she could be a handful at times. I put the card in my filing cabinet at the start of the year because I like to get to know my kids from my own perspective without previous judgments.
I call all of my students the week before school begins to get them excited about school (that’s just how I roll). We then have a ‘Welcome Back Picnic’ at our school to meet the parents and children in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
When I met Bella and her mom at the picnic, I noticed that Bella appeared to be ‘running the show.’ Her mom and I talked for a bit and she shared that Bella’s dad died when she was only eight months old and it was just the two of them still to this day. It was easy to see that mom was compensating for the loss.
Within the first month of school, I could certainly see why Bella had earned this reputation of being a handful. She could be a bit silly and somewhat defiant at times, however she knew the rules of our classroom and understood what kind of behavior was expected, so she did well with me.
Right after the December break things started to change. Bella was getting herself into trouble in several of her classes (art, music & gym). She was not listening to directions and defying the teachers when they asked her not to do something. She was also talking back to adults in the building and getting herself into trouble at her before and after school program.
Her mom and I talked on the phone to create a plan of action. I suggested a behavior plan to help her but asked mom to promise to follow through at home for this to be effective. The plan worked for a few days, but Bella just didn’t seem to care about making good choices.
On a Friday afternoon (likely around a full moon) Bella’s plea for help became apparent. She got in trouble from the moment she entered the school. She needed a great deal of redirection from me and found herself in trouble everywhere she went that day. At lunchtime I got a phone call from the cafeteria asking if she was with me because she took it upon herself to leave the cafeteria without permission. This put several staff members in a state of panic.
I walked down the hall and found her. We sat down and talked about her choices and how this was not safe. She apologized sweetly and assured me it wouldn’t happen again. The children returned to the room and she asked to go to the bathroom. Five minutes later she was brought to me by another teacher who caught her fooling around in the bathroom.
I was outraged and caught up in the moment. I called her mom and asked her to meet me for an impromptu conference with Bella right after school. My intent was to make an impact on her by having an immediate meeting with mom because she appeared to have no remorse. She was talking the talk by saying how sorry she was, but not choosing to walk the walk and something needed to be done.
A few hours later mom arrived at the school with tears in her eyes. She expressed her disappointment and shared concern that she was failing as a mother. She told me that she was terrified that Bella did not have a bond with her because she suffered from post partum after giving birth and felt that this was all her fault. Bella was often in charge because she was afraid to give her consequences for fear that she would hate her. I reassured her that we would work through this together and come up with a plan.
When we entered the room, Bella ran up to her mom with a huge smile and jumped into her arms. This, of course made her mother cry even more. She was most upset that her daughter didn’t have any remorse for her actions.
While we were having the meeting, Bella sat there stone faced with a smirk at times answering our questions like a trained professional. Her mom asked her why we were having the meeting and she answered stoically, “We are having this meeting because I’m not making good choices. I’m sorry Mommy.”
I watched her and quickly noticed that she was not present. I looked into her eyes and said, “Bella, thank you for telling us what you know we want to hear, but what I’d really like to know is how you feel.” I referred to my children’s book, “The Light Inside of Me” because we use this frequently in our classroom to describe how we are feeling. I asked her if she felt that the light inside was bright or dim. She of course said it was dim.
I looked at her with loving eyes and said, “Bella, would you please put your hands on your heart and close your eyes because I’d like to talk about your feelings.” She complied without hesitation. I then asked her to use an ‘I Statement’ to tell us why her light was dim.
She took a few minutes with her eyes closed then opened them and looked right at me. Her whole demeanor was different. She was softer, gentler, and certainly in the present moment. She began to talk and tenderly said, “Well Mrs. Savini, my light is dim because I feel sad. I feel sad because sometimes I wish my life was different. I wish that one of my friends could live with me and my mom because I get lonely. I feel lonely Mrs. Savini and that makes me really sad.”
I gave her a big hug and told her that we would work this out together. Her smile lit up the room as her light within was beaming.
Bella was crying out just like an infant. Sure at six, children have words to express their feelings, but it’s difficult to do that when you are not sure of your truth. By asking Bella to place her hands on her heart and feel her feelings, she felt safe and was able to truly express her discomfort.
Our intent that day was to teach her a lesson, but the true lesson was in being compassionate instead of judgmental. By opening our hearts to her plea for help we gave her the opportunity to express what was really bothering her. Bella and her mom made some simple changes at home and she has been a totally different kid from that time…her best self!
Our children are a mirror for whatever we are experiencing in life. We think we hide it well, but we don’t because they are not rationalizing our reactions in their heads. Instead, they are feeling the energy we are projecting. Bella wasn’t looking to break the rules or get in trouble. Instead, she was communicating a need that was born from her emotional pain. Today and every day take a step back when your children are ‘acting out’ and really observe the situation. Treat them like infants and go to the core of their issue to solve the problem. Instead of judging their behavior and reacting with fear, take the time to respond by understanding what they are really communicating.