[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED @ BESTTHINKING. COM – FEBRUARY 2014]
This is a story about a nine-year-old boy on the verge of being removed from his home. He was a “terror” in school, and his family was held hostage. The school was asking for him to be medicated for his psychiatric “disorder.” See what happens to this horrible kid, and what it means for other horrible kids.
CHAPTER I: How “horrible” can a kid be?
In 1999, a well established mental health agency in California opened one of the first private, non-profit “wraparound” programs in the State. I was selected as the Executive Director.
Wraparound programs were established to provide services to families struggling with troubled or troublesome children while the child was still living in the home. Without these services, children were in jeopardy of being removed from their families and placed in a foster home, a group home, or a larger mental health facility. Families are referred to these programs by the county Department of Social Services, the Mental Health Department, and, though rare, a school district. As a bonus, these types of wraparound programs were touted to be much more cost effective than out-of-home placement – at least they began that way. (More about wraparound here.)
After 12 months of operation, we had a number of successes with the families we were entrusted to help. Our team was routinely out in the community and in the homes of our families doing “whatever it takes” – the battle cry of all wraparound programs at the time – to keep the family intact. We had exceptional people working in the program filling the roles of counselor, Mental Health Resource Specialist (MHRS)[i] and a therapist. Though we were still learning, we were dedicated, and we were confident we had the skills to help our families.
One day I got a call from a county social worker. We were providing services for two of her families already, and she was pleased with our work. She wanted to refer a nine-year-old boy she had on her caseload for three months. Let’s call him Jerry. Without our help, she feared, Jerry was headed for out-of-home placement. “If I have to remove Jerry from his home,” she said with some caution, “I’m not so sure I’ll be able to find a foster parent willing to put up with this horrible kid!”
She gave me details, and I accepted the referral. I contacted Jerry’s school and spoke with his school counselor. I asked how Jerry was doing. She told me he was enrolled three months earlier, and he was in special classes for the “learning disabled.” She let me know Jerry was performing below grade level. When asked, she also said he didn’t have any friends, adding “he’s just horrible in the classroom!”
The school did some testing. Schools love to “test” kids, especially kids they have don’t know how to manage. The school counselor told me their psychologist determined Jerry “likely has ADHD.” She was frustrated with Jerry’s mother because, “I told her we wanted to refer Jerry to a child psychiatrist because of the benefits medication can have, and she refused. Perhaps,” she implored me, “you can help her accept the idea that Jerry has a real disability.”
Since there is no such thing as “disability,” I knew we were going to have to consider the school’s perspective as we developed our plan to help.
“Horrible . . . just horrible.”
That’s what Jerry’s mother said when I asked, for the first time, how Jerry was doing. We were in her home, her eyes a little misty; she was dejected, not mad. Her name, for this tale, is Gloria. Gloria had more or less surrendered herself to the idea Jerry was always going to be her responsibility regardless of the never-ending burden, and that he would never really improve. She had been told as much by a number of professionals by then. “The school is right,” she told me, “Jerry is unmanageable.”
Maybe you know kids like this. Tell him to go left, he goes right – often because you told him to go left. “Sit down and be quiet!” only seemed to provoke more animated refusals. “Time-outs” were, well, a waste of time, because he simply wouldn’t comply. Punishment – the most overused and least effective of all techniques – got nowhere.
Rewards? Desperation, and continued failure, placed the professionals in his life in the unenviable position of rewarding Jerry for not doing something. This is common in schools and treatment facilities. Rewarding a child for not having a tantrum is counter to behavioral techniques and, mostly, another waste of time. Rewards are provided to start behaviors you want to encourage, not to stop behaviors you want to discourage. Thus, this approach was also ineffective, leading to an inevitable, irresponsible, and much too common assertion from nearly everyone: “we’ve tried everything, and nothing works!”
Getting him to school was hit and miss. Gloria did her best in the morning corralling him into the school van that showed up, often with the help of the van driver. Too often, both would yield to the tantrums. Consequently, Jerry missed a lot of school. Once he got there, it was no cakewalk. Jerry was famous. Everyone in the small school, including office staff, nurse, maintenance, all the teachers and teacher’s aides, and every administrator in the building knew Jerry.
If sufficiently provoked, it was not uncommon for Jerry to throw objects, tip over chairs and anything else in his way, curse at the top of his lungs, and in other ways defy any and all directives from the adults in his life, sometimes to the point of physical restraint. He often did so with a sense of glee – and a grin on his face – that only served to irritate the adults in charge even more. He had the attention of everyone. They all greeted him the same way on those days when he did arrive at school. “Lets have good day today, Jerry . . .” adding, with an apprehensive smile, “. . . okay?”
The Path to Horrible
Jerry never knew his father. Gloria married when she was 28 years old, and she was pregnant a year later. Her husband left one day when Jerry was nearly two and never returned. Gloria and her young son were abandoned with no means, so she moved in with her mother. I’ll call her Eleanor. At the time, Eleanor lived in a nice home in Orange County, California. Gloria was Eleanor’s second child. She had an older daughter in Florida. Jerry was her only grandson. Eleanor was widowed a year before Jerry was born.
When she first moved into her mother’s home, everything was “okay,” so said Gloria. Jerry was mostly happy, and always active. He was alone most of the time, and seemed to enjoy himself. There were no other family members in California. Gloria was a full time bookkeeper for a department store, working 40 hours a week to support the family. Because her mother was home while Gloria worked, and because of financial considerations, Jerry never attended pre-school. He hadn’t had much interaction with other children his age until he started Kindergarten.
Real trouble didn’t start until Jerry entered school. By the time he was in the first grade, “he just refused to pay attention to his teacher,” said his mother. “He hated sitting still in the classroom,” adding, “I was constantly getting phone calls from school that he was becoming harder and harder to manage, and that he was falling behind his classmates.”
By mid-semester, the school suggested a special class for Jerry. Gloria dutifully agreed. After the required school meeting that included his mother and the relevant professionals in his life, Jerry was officially declared, “learning disabled.” Now six years old, his school career was getting off to a very rocky start. Over the next year, behaviors worsened.
Jerry was becoming harder to manage at home as well. By the time he was seven, he was a “terror” at home, according his mom. Both mother and grandmother were frightened by his outbursts and did what they could to appease him. By then, raising Jerry had become a full time job for Gloria and her mother. Speaking of jobs, Gloria told me she began to miss more and more work due to a series of crises involving Jerry and his school. As if not enough stress already for this family, Jerry was known in the neighborhood as the “wild child.” Neighbors kept their children away from him.
There were dozens of meetings, new plans were developed, and a string of professionals had come and gone, with no results. At some point, social services became involved. With encouragement from many, Gloria and Eleanor decided to move. Maybe, everyone reasoned, a fresh start in a different setting was in order. Eleanor found a tenant for her house in Orange County, and the family moved to an isolated home, in a small desert city, on the outskirts of Southern California. Social services transferred the case to the new county. By the middle of Jerry’s first semester in his new school, we received a referral to help this family remain together.
CHAPTER II: Time for Change
The family moved at the end of the school year. Gloria (Guardian/Inspector for the temperament trained) knew she had marketable skills. Having hired a number of bookkeepers in my career, I know how valuable they can be to an organization. Gloria found a job before she moved. She was frugal, God-fearing, simply dressed and, in a word, dutiful.
They moved to one of a dozen or so small, isolated towns that make up the “upper” and “lower” deserts in Southern California. I asked Gloria why she picked this particular location. “I asked a friend at work,” she said. “I told her I wanted to stay close enough so I could visit Orange County, but far enough away so there aren’t many people – or neighbors. She told me about this place.”
She found a home the first weekend she and her mother, Eleanor, went looking. Eleanor (Guardian/Provider), a retired schoolteacher, was devoted to her daughter and her only grandson. In her mid-sixties, she had some health problems. She was ambulatory, though she was using her walker more and more. Eleanor would help as much as she could around the house, but the bulk of the home chores were done by Gloria.
Houses are spread out in this small desert town. Gloria’s nearest neighbor was several hundred yards away. The county-maintained dirt and gravel roads were lined with Yucca and other cacti. Most people kept to themselves. Gloria and her family lived about a ten-minute drive to the middle of town where there were a few traffic light intersections, a two block square of small businesses, and City Hall.
In Jerry’s old neighborhood, there were kids around. Though he was shunned by his peers, during the day there were the sounds of children on bicycles, on skateboards, and playing catch on his block in Orange County. Not here. They were isolated. Their first summer before school started didn’t go well. They were hoping they would find relief, and support, once school started. They didn’t.
As director, it was my practice to meet new families that became part of our wraparound program. I called Gloria on the Friday we got the referral, and we set up a meeting the following Monday, one of her days off. I told her I’d like to meet with her alone first, so I scheduled a visit about 90 minutes before the school van dropped Jerry off at home. She said that would be a good idea, and added, “. . . though I can’t promise you he won’t be here anyway, if I can’t get him to go to school in the morning.”
In the middle of the one acre parcel sat an older, well-maintained house. There was a chain link fence around the property. There were some large cacti on the perimeter, blocking the view. The rest of the property was natural desert land, except for a small garden area for Eleanor to grow some flowers and vegetables. In front of the garden, there was an open dirt area where Jerry sometimes played, alone, on his bicycle – and not much else. As I entered the home for the first time, I began to understand how desperate this family had become.
Directly in front of me, as I walked in the door, was the living room. There was a tattered loveseat on the opposite wall. That’s where Gloria went to sit down. To her right, with a small table and lamp in between, was a cushioned rocker where Eleanor was sitting and, next to her, a walker. There was a coffee table in front of them both. There was another small chair to the left of the love seat. That’s where I sat. It was Jerry’s chair. All the chairs faced the front door wall.
At the entryway, looking to my right, I saw a small television and TV stand, and three folded TV trays. On the adjacent wall there was a padlocked bedroom door (used for storage I found out later), and next to that an old desk with a computer. Directly to the left of the desk, and on the same wall as the loveseat, was the door to the kitchen.
To the left of the Eleanor’s walker was an open entryway to a step down, large dining room. In it was a beautiful, formal, dark mahogany, dining room set that included a long table, eight chairs, and two china cabinets. Everything was covered in heavy plastic. There were stacks of boxes on the furniture, and along the wall of the room. There was dust everywhere, as though no one ever went in there. No one did.
Still standing in the entryway, to my left and down a very short hallway was the door to Jerry’s room. His room had a single bed. The room was small, though adequate and clean, and minimally decorated. The window in his room was nailed shut. A little further down the hallway on the right was the door to the master bedroom. Mother and daughter shared the master bedroom with two single beds. At the end of the hallway was the bathroom that Jerry used.
They managed to get Jerry to school the day I arrived. I introduced myself, and we began to talk. Within a few minutes, Eleanor started to cry. Here’s why.
Gloria made it nearly impossible for Jerry to go anywhere in the house without her or his grandmother knowing. There was a latch on the kitchen door, out of Jerry’s reach, that would be locked when he was home. They kept snacks like cookies and potato chips and fruit in the living room. There was a lock on the master bedroom door as well, except at night. There were boxes filling up the entryway to the dining room, making it very difficult to enter without raising the attention of mother and grandmother.
So, Jerry had access to the living room, his bedroom, his bathroom – and that’s it. At night, the front door had a deadbolt to keep everyone out and, added as soon as they moved in, a second deadbolt, at the top of the door, to keep Jerry in. He had snuck out in the middle the night many times over the years.
Mother and grandmother kept the door to their bedroom open and unlocked at night so they could hear. Still, they put two chairs in front of the door to act as a barrier, “. . . in case Jerry got up in the middle of the night,” said Gloria, “demanding something.” The door to his bathroom was unlocked and accessible. There were no items or decorations on the floor, on the walls, or on the counter, except for a toothbrush and toothpaste.
In the next 90 minutes, they told me much more about their plight over the past several years. Jerry would become belligerent and “explosive,” according to both of them. He would throw items in the home, sometimes at his mother and grandmother. Appeasement and capitulation were their remaining child management “tools.” They would do nearly anything to avoid an outburst. All of them – Jerry, mother, grandmother – were captives in their own home.
Gloria loved her son, and Eleanor loved her only grandson, dearly. Yet, reluctantly, they both acknowledged that maybe Jerry would be better off somewhere else “where they can take better care of him.”
“Can you help us?,” Eleanor asked, nearly without hope.
“Yes,” I answered, “we can.”
Just about then, we heard the van driving up the gravel road to drop Jerry off at home. Mother and grandmother began to apologize for Jerry’s behavior, before he entered the house.
Good, I thought to myself, time to meet this “horrible kid.”
CHAPTER III: Heeeere’s Jerry!!
Gloria got up, went to the door, and walked out to the van. “I’m praying he’ll be good, Dr. Cima,” she grimaced, “but I can’t guarantee it.” Gramma Eleanor began to cry, again.
Before Jerry arrived, Gloria said they never knew what to expect when Jerry came home. Sometimes he’d have a smile on his face, other times his face would be beet red from anger. He might ask for an apple, or toss his backpack at his mother. It was common for Jerry to be the only child in the school van, “for safety reasons.” Good days or bad, whether alone or with other kids, there was an extra staff member assigned to sit next to him, to and from school.
We decided it would be a good idea for me to meet with Jerry alone so, as planned, I followed Gloria outside. I met the teacher’s aide, and “escort,” John. He told Gloria that Jerry had a “mixed” day. John said Jerry was “good in the morning, but he became very agitated in the afternoon, so we had him in a ‘time out.’”
“Time out” meant he was taken from the classroom, and a staff member was assigned to supervise him in a separate and isolated room. No teaching occurred. It was supervision only, so Jerry wouldn’t disrupt the classroom. John was twenty-something, liked his job, very nice, and very poorly trained in child management methods.
Jerry was a normal sized 9-year-old, maybe a bit smaller than most, but not by much. He was slender and he looked in good health. He had light brown hair, he was fair skinned, and he was dressed nicely by his mother. However, on this day, his clothes were disheveled, as though he had been wrestling. I learned later, while being escorted out of the classroom to his time out, Jerry had to be restrained by John and another aide at school. I remember thinking, when I first saw him, he looked like an angry Dennis the Menace.
In her most cautious voice, as though she was trying to avoid an outburst, mother started to introduce me to Jerry. I interrupted, just a little, as I smiled at Jerry. I learned during my conversation with Gloria and her mother that he liked baseball.
“Hi Jerry,” I said, “I’m Dr. Cima. Wanna play catch?”
“Yeah!,” he answered.
He dropped his backpack, ran to his room, got a ball, and came back outside – with a good looking grin on his face. For the next 15 minutes or so, we played catch, and we were having some fun. He wasn’t very good at playing catch, as though he hadn’t had much practice. He was going to get some, we both found out. For the next six months, whenever I came to his house, he wouldn’t talk with me until we played catch, for about 15 minutes or so. It was our routine, and a small price to pay, having some fun with this fun-loving Star. That, and not coincidentally, he got better and better at catching and throwing a ball, and I was able let him know it. He was proud of his improvement.
By the way, when you can, it’s a good idea to meet a child for the first time when he’s at his best, not his worst. How does he behave when he’s happy? What does she like to do? What energizes him? What entices her interest? Besides, I knew all about Jerry at his worst, as attested to by his mother, grandmother, teacher, and social worker.
We had a short conversation, mostly about things he liked to do, nothing about things he didn’t like to do. He was wary. I was just another adult in his life, probably there to “boss me around, like everyone else.” It’s worth pointing out, Jerry was bright. That is, he could read adults very well. He knew how to provoke, or charm, as needed.
He told me he liked to play, that was clear, and he told me he liked to draw. I learned from mother he did a lot of drawing in his room using pencils from a set she bought him. I saw a few of his drawings. They were very colorful, some were well done, for a promising artist. If there was a theme to his drawings, I didn’t see one. There were pictures of animals, cactus, and unnamed people. No particular emotion jumped out at me either. These were mostly drawings of his surroundings. He didn’t keep many, and not many people had seen them.
About 45 minutes or so passed and I declared, to myself, that Jerry perfectly normal. He was, of course. At his best, he was cute, he was happy, and he was fun. To be sure, he was driving adults crazy, and they were ready to restrict his movements at a moment’s notice. Still others were clamoring to give him some sort of medicine, also intended to restrict his movements, and to get him to finally “pay attention!!”
If you were expecting this to be about how we changed or fixed Jerry, well, you may be surprised, though I hope not. If you didn’t know, I write a blog called “Your Kids Aren’t Sick,” here. That includes Jerry. He didn’t need changing or fixing and, from a temperament perspective, that’s not even possible. Instead, as you will see, we helped adults change their behavior, and Jerry’s followed. This is always true, and usually denied, by adults, especially professional adults.
I was confident we could help mother and grandmother. They had lost control of their child some years before, for reasons that really don’t matter. I knew mother and grandmother felt defeated. However, I also knew they wanted Jerry to remain at home, despite their doubts. Please remember, as a wraparound program, our mission was to keep the family whole. With a few child management techniques, and some modeling by our team, mother and grandmother would be back in control in a relatively short period.
My major concern was school. I had a scheduled meeting the next day with Jerry’s teacher, and others. I was sure with time, persistence, and some good work by our team, we could get Jerry to school in the morning, every day, with a smile on his face. I wasn’t sure, however, without interactive changes by the school, how long the smile would last once we did. Most important, unless the adults change in both locations, in the long run, not much will improve.
I brought my wraparound counselor, Angela, with me. The two of us met, after school hours, with Jerry’s teacher, two teacher’s aides from his classroom, the school psychologist, and the Principal. Wraparound was a new California statewide service in 1999, it was court ordered, and most professionals were supportive. When I asked for a general meeting with everyone, they readily agreed. They needed, and wanted, help too, so I knew we would have willing participants, at least in the beginning. The trick is to encourage the participants to become our partners in this endeavor.
For the temperament-tuned, Angela was a Champion Idealist, and her enthusiasm alone was enough to give everyone a much needed positive “boost.” She was smart, she was an experienced trainer in child management, kids liked her, and so did everyone else. Her relationship with school personnel was going to be key to creating the changes that needed to occur.
The school reported, as determined in Jerry’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), that Jerry needed an abundance of one-on-one time. They assigned staff members to bring him to school and to take him home. Others were there “to be with him” at breaks, recess, and lunch. He was rarely “in the right mood” to interact with the other children. His demeanor went, seemingly, from flat to fiery in a matter of moments. They used a token economy in the classroom to provide motivation and behavioral guidance. They also relied on Zero Tolerance as their discipline program. None of this seemed to help. Without hesitation, the Principal, teacher, and aides all agreed Jerry was their most difficult challenge of all their students.
The psychologist also reminded Angela and me of his professional assessment. He stated Jerry is “obviously ADHD.” He said he would like to refer Jerry to a psychiatrist and that “mother is not cooperating.” In private, those words rankle me to my core. Parents are routinely chastised, increasingly often, for not giving permission to a doctor to give their child an amphetamine, for a disease that doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, in this meeting, I listened. I wasn’t there to debate the school psychologist.
Instead, we told everyone we’d be developing a plan, and that we would like to collaborate with the teacher and aides. I said we were confident that, together, we could all help Jerry’s mother reach her goals. We also decided, at this first team meeting, that we were going to delay other recommendations, including psychiatric. It’s important to get everyone on board. They were skeptical, perhaps cynical, and they were expecting us to change Jerry. Nevertheless, we had their commitment, and that’s all we wanted to accomplish at our initial meeting.
Now, it was our turn. Angela and I needed to gather our team at the office. We needed to put together the plan.
CHAPTER IV: The Plan
Angela and I began to talk about a plan on the way back to the office. Two things were evident.
There was an ongoing crisis at home. Gloria changed jobs, moved her family from their long time home in Orange County, leaving security and friendships behind. Gloria and her mother Eleanor were hopeful and optimistic that a new start, in a new school, in a new neighborhood, would reap new behaviors. Instead, now isolated and desperate, the family was disintegrating. Unless we intervened, quickly, in a beneficial way, the county social worker was leaning towards removing Jerry from his home and placing him in foster care “to make sure he received treatment.” That would, I knew, inevitably lead to Jerry being medicated with one or more of those toxic chemicals, for his “disease.” And that, in my view, was intolerable.
Also evident, the school was out of ideas. The school psychologist told me “Jerry has not improved over the last three months despite our concentrated efforts.” He followed with, “and his behavior just seems to be getting worse and worse.” This type of logic makes me wince. Schools, treatment facilities, and other places where children gather to learn, to be trained, or to be helped are quick to take credit for a child’s success by touting the elements of their “evidence based” program. When no learning or training or help occurs, they are just as quick to place blame on the child for her own “failure to improve,” due to a “learning disability” or “psychiatric disorder,” or some other “deficiency.”
There was going to be two parts to the plan. Part I: Get Jerry to school. Part II: Make school a good experience so he wants to be there. I was confident about Part I. After all, he was nine years old. To be sure, mother and grandmother were engaging in some very common mistakes when managing Jerry. With coaching and some very intense initial support by our team, I knew it wouldn’t take long for mother to be back in control of her son.
I was less confident about Part II. The school, the principal proudly told me, was a “Zero Tolerance” campus. This is when a school decides they will model intolerance to their students and their families, and claim this as a virtue. This failed model of “control first” is designed to fortify adults, at the expense of the children they supervise. Principals, some with a dab of zealotry, can become very hard to manage when armed with Zero Tolerance.
As a reminder, we received this referral on a Friday morning. I visited the family the following Monday. Angela and I met with the school on Tuesday. The next day was our regularly scheduled Wednesday staff meeting.
Our team included a therapist, Jordan, a Mental Health Resource Specialist (MHRS)[i], Vincent, Angela, and me. We formally had three services we could provide: therapy, social work, and counseling. Less formally, as a wraparound program, I knew we could do anything we needed to do to help this family, and that gave us great latitude. Here’s what we decided that Wednesday morning.
1. Starting that day, enroll mother and grandmother in our Family Night every Wednesday.
We started Family Night six months earlier. We had about four or five families that showed up every Wednesday at 5:00 PM. We provided transportation as needed. Once there, we had coffee and edibles for the adults, and we talked about the past week. We interacted for about 90 minutes, 30 of those minutes used for training in child management techniques. As important, the parents got to know each other and, as they shared many common stories, they comforted one another. Jordan and I provided guidance for this part the support group. We encouraged the parents to bring their kids.
Angela and Vincent took care of the kids once they arrived. Sometimes they would take them out for pizza. Other times, they had arts and crafts projects they were working on at the office, and they’d bring in food. At the time there were two young teenage girls, a 12 year old boy, an 8 year old girl (who eventually befriended Jerry), and a 6 year old boy that often stayed with her mother and the rest of us adults. (A year later we had nearly two dozen families involved, and about 40 children – we had to add an extra night!)
So, right after our morning staff meeting, I called Gloria to invite her to Family Night. It was short notice, however, I was sure that if we made it easy, she would jump at the chance. She did. I told her Angela would pick up the three of them by 4:00 PM, and we would have them back home no later that 7:00 PM. This was also going to be a great chance for Angela to meet Jerry. The two of them were going to end up spending a lot of time together. As important, it was a priority to get everyone out of that house for a little while, every week. They had been trapped for many months. Over the next six months, they never missed our Wednesday Family Night.
2. Beginning on Monday, one of us on the team would arrive at Gloria’s home by 6:30 AM to help get Jerry out of bed, dressed, fed, out the door, into the van, and off to school.
We committed to do this every day until it was no longer necessary for one of us to be there. This was key. Everyone’s day in the household began with turmoil. Every night each of them went to bed, unhappy, dreading the inevitable morning encounter. That had to stop. So, our plan was to take turns, each of us doing a week at a time. We had other cases we were working so our schedules had to adjust. Since we were going to have Angela spend a lot of time at school, Vincent took the first week, Jordan the second week, and I had week three. We intended to do this between the three of us for as long as it took to get Jerry into school everyday, without incident.
Who was “Out of Control?”
Parents and professionals make similar mistakes when trying to get back in control of recalcitrant children. The most common mistake? Arguments. Once you acquiesce and engage in a “yes you will – no I won’t!” conversation, whether with a 3 year old or 17 year old – while in the middle of giving a directive – the ending is nearly always unpleasant. Most unpleasant, these kinds of confrontations don’t really end at all. If you’re in an argument, it means there’s a negotiation taking place, something you did not intend. By the way, children love to negotiate, for as long as you are willing and then some, especially when it comes to school, chores, and other unpleasant endeavors they want to avoid.
However, when arguing occurs daily for even the most minor directives, over time everyone’s emotions are unsettled, and everyone’s moods can, and do, adjust from moment to moment as “negotiations” continue. Arguments often deteriorate and may include a variety of invectives, and other hurtful words. For parents – especially conscientious parents – frustration mounts.
On the other hand, for children, especially bright children, an argument can be ignited – and fueled – simply by ignoring you, imploring you, delaying you, faulting you, or in other ways letting you know they will prevail in an argument you never intended to have in the first place. Inevitably, these types of two-way conversations lead to the second most common mistake that well-informed, loving parents and professionals unwittingly engage in: threats.
Threats sound like this: “If you don’t get your butt off the chair right now and into your room and take out the trash then . . . ,” followed by something you’re going to take way from him, whether a privilege, a possession, a level of freedom, or some other form of punishment. Giving “If . . . then!” directives unwittingly gives control of the outcome of the argument to the child, perhaps the most unintended of all consequences. [ii]
So, after first hand experience in her home, we knew we had to help Gloria avoid arguments and threats, however subtle or habitual they were. Much more important, we gave her new tools to handle those escalating conversations. Over the next few weeks, we were there every morning to model these techniques. [iii]
Beginning on Monday, Angela would be at school every day to assist Jerry in the classroom.
I called the principal that Wednesday afternoon and met with her the next day. While the classroom teacher may appreciate the help, school districts have rules to follow, with formal protocols for nearly everything. Adding a new person to the classroom would take some doing. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with Jerry’s school principal, and she was an advocate of our new wraparound program. It took an extra week before we could go into the classroom, but it was worth the wait. Now we had the support of the court, the principal, as well as the classroom teacher and her aides. Our full team was in place.
Angela showed up at school every morning at 10 AM. The classroom teacher was relieved. She knew she had extra help every day, just for Jerry, so Jerry became less of a management concern. She had Jerry’s schoolwork for that day prepared ahead of time. The other two classroom aides, who usually spent a good portion for their day grudgingly arguing, threatening, cajoling and in other ways, managing Jerry, had other children to attend to, and looked forward to handing Jerry over to Angela at 10 AM every day. Jerry, as much as anyone, looked forward to his time with Angela too.
Angela stayed until 1 PM every day. We thought it was a good idea to be there through lunch. Jerry was eating lunch with one of the aides who was assigned to him, in a separate room, because he was so disruptive. That changed immediately. Angela and Jerry sat together in the cafeteria with the other kids and adults for lunch. Within a few days, she organized some games during lunch for a few of the kids, Jerry joining in.
There’s often a honeymoon period when new elements are brought into relationships. Jerry had less apprehension about school, and so did the school staff. We altered the obvious yet unaware patterns of behavior of the adults in Jerry’s life that were exacerbating the otherwise normal behaviors of this 9-year-old Star. We also knew we had to take advantage of the honeymoon period. They usually don’t last too long without fundamental changes taking place.
One more thing, before I tell you about our results. When Family Night was over that evening, I told Jerry I would come by on Friday so we could play catch. He grinned. When I got there on Friday, I told him, as I was leaving, that I would see him again on Monday after school. He grinned again. For the first week, I showed up every day after school at 3 PM – except Wednesdays when the entire family came to the office. I usually stayed for about an hour. We played catch, we talked about the day, I checked in with mother and grandmother, and I left. The second week I showed up on Monday and Friday and, by the third week, I showed up Friday only – and every Friday after that, for the next 3 months.
Results at Home
I mentioned earlier that I had the third week to get Jerry out of bed and off to school. By then our team had met many times. Both Jordan and Vincent, though different in their approaches and temperaments, were successful. By the second or third day of their week, each of them was tested. Jerry didn’t want to go to school on those days, and he made sure he let everyone know, in his own inimitable way. So, with Jordan and Vincent equipped with patience, technique, and an undying persistence, Jerry got to school anyway. Both Jordan and Vincent had one day, and two days, respectively, when they had to drive Jerry to school because he didn’t get in the van on time. Nonetheless, he arrived at school. Persistence, training, and a conviction to avoid arguments and threats, paid off.
Now it was my turn. Keep in mind, I had spent a lot of time with Jerry. He liked me, and he trusted me, little by little. The first day, Monday, was a good day. I got there at 6:30 AM. He knew I was coming. He was up already, and he was cooperative, though a few times I had to give some reminders. Still, I got him off to school. (I forgot to mention that our team took over in the morning. We gave the directives to Jerry, and we were responsible to get him off to school. There were no confrontations between Jerry and his mother while we were there, and that was a good thing.)
By the second day, not nearly so easy. Jerry woke up in what his mother always called “a foul mood,” and he didn’t want to go to school that day. So, like Jordan and Vincent, I stuck with our techniques, and I was persistent. On my third day, Jerry declined to get up, period. He was in full-blown refusal mode. Still, he got into the van on time. Please remember, he also knew by then that Angela would be at school by 10 AM. That made a difference.
By the way, what do you think we did? You’d be right to think we chased after him, sometimes, around his room. On his worst days, we would corral him, verbally, and, avoiding arguments and threats, continue – like a broken record – to insist he get out of bed, in his clothes, fed, and off to school, even if that meant we would drive him there.
I mentioned earlier that Gloria had Mondays off. On a hunch, I checked with the school. Jerry never missed school on a Monday. Other days were hit and miss, Friday the most common missed day, but not Monday. Not even once. She could get him there on Monday, but not without a lot of turmoil. Still, she got him there.
If you play a slot machine and it pays off every once in a while, you keep playing. If your slot machine never paid off, you’d stop playing. Jerry figured out that some days his antics “paid off,” so he kept playing. It’s worth repeating: whatever those antics were – and they were energetic – they didn’t work on Mondays.
On my fourth day, I arrived on time as usual. By then, Jerry had more or less succumbed to the idea that he was going to school. He didn’t make it easy. He was also persistent in his techniques” to avoid school. However, there was an inevitability that seemed to finally win the day – as it always eventually does. After a few contentious moments in the next 90 minutes, Jerry got in the van and left for school. That’s when Gloria asked to talk to me.
“Dr. Cima,” she said, “you don’t have to come tomorrow. And you don’t have to send anyone else next week either. I can handle this myself,” she said, a little sheepishly, I noticed.
We honored her request, though we suggested one of us come by at 8 AM starting the following week, just to see how she was doing. She thought that was a good idea, so we did. The next week we showed up as promised, this time at 8 AM. The week was not without incident. Mother had one or two hard days. However, we never had to intervene, nor did we have to transport Jerry to school. He got in the van every day. It was getting easier for everyone. So was school.
Results at school
Angela was doing what I anticipated. She provided enthusiasm and fresh energy in a negative environment. Jerry was no longer a target. He couldn’t be. Once he got to school, he only had to make it to 10 AM, and he knew Angela would show up. Once she showed up, he got her complete attention. That eased the pressure on the entire classroom, kids and adults. Within a few weeks, Jerry improved dramatically. Who’s surprised?
In addition to his lessons, Angela had him drawing every day. He got better and better at something he was already doing. More important, he received acknowledgement from his teacher, aides, and classmates. The teacher, with Angela’s urging, announced she was going to have an art contest. Jerry won. Whether he deserved to win or not, he won. There was much less to frown about at school – for everyone.
He was befriended by two boys in class who started to eat with him at lunch. This took some time to develop. Jerry hadn’t had any real friends, well, ever. He was the problem child in school and his neighborhood nearly from the beginning of his school life. Other kids shied away, Jerry’s behavior so unpredictable, and adult responses so intense. Angela spent a lot of time helping him nurture his new found friendships. He also had a friend – a girl – he met from Family Night. She was also a Star. She also needed a friend.
By week five, Angela showed up 3 days a week. The following week, twice. By the beginning of the third month, she met with Jerry, and his teacher, once a week until the end of the school year. By then, it was a lunch date, as Angela arrived in time to have lunch with the two of them in the cafeteria. Was he still, at times, hard to manage? Of course. He was nine. However, by then, he was no worse or better than anyone else in class.
We had regularly scheduled weekly meetings with the team at school, and that included Gloria. Once a month the county social worker joined us. Progress was undeniable. Crisis avoided.
What about “Therapy?”
There was no time for therapy when we started. More important, therapy has nothing to do with child management. Unless they receive training, therapists haven’t a clue how to manage children, nor should they. Child management is not taught in graduate school. Level systems or point systems or other forms of behavior modification can be useful to start new behaviors, when used and designed for an individual child, and not a group of children. To the degree “b-mod” is used to stop unwanted behaviors or as a discipline tool, they continually fail.
Nonetheless, we had a gifted therapist. She made it a point to spend private times with all our parents on Family Night. She had a good relationship with Gloria. After the crisis was averted, she began to spend more private time with Gloria because, as Jordan told me, “now she can talk about other things in her life besides Jerry.” As you may guess, Gloria had a lot to talk about with our therapist. Jordan began to meet with Gloria every other week for an hour or so, just to talk. By then, Gloria started to get a grin too.
Vincent, our Mental Health Resource Specialist, was very resourceful. By the second month, he began to search for a Big Brother and, after interviewing a few candidates, he selected Domenic, a 25-year-old graduate school student, majoring in economics, with a minor in physical education. Domenic was single, stable, lived close, liked kids, and he was a great model for this long time fatherless – and friendless – child. Domenic was the perfect “medicine.”
Looking back, I think this may have been the most important addition to this family. Our wraparound team was gradually withdrawing our involvement, as we inevitably needed to do. Domenic took to Jerry immediately, and vice versa. He saw Jerry at least twice a week, and usually for a half day every weekend. They went places and they did things. That’s all that was needed.
A Few Final Thoughts
Yes, dear reader, it took this much initial effort to avoid a catastrophe that had been brewing for several years. By the time we were involved, everyone was overwhelmed. The school knew all about Jerry long before he arrived. The prior school sent all of Jerry’s incident reports along with his academic shortcomings to the new school. The psychologist told me that they knew they were getting “a firecracker!” Reputations matter. It was as if he had a giant X on his back from the first day. (I’ll be writing about “The Baldy Maneuver,” a reputation-changing technique that we used with much success during our meetings with school personnel and the county social worker.)
By the way, do you remember John, one of the teacher’s aides in Jerry’s class who was also the transport driver in the van? I told you he was likable, and very poorly trained. Well, since he was there every morning with us, everyone on our staff got to know him too. Six months later, he applied for a job in our expanding program, and I hired him. Also, the teacher became good friends with Angela and, with her urging, convinced the principal to have us come in and do some child management training for the school. We did, once a month, for the next six months.
About a year after I first got the referral, I was offered and accepted a position as Executive Director for a residential facility that housed teenage boys. I managed to leave the wraparound program in good hands. At that time, Domenic was still involved with Jerry. About three months later, I had lunch with my replacement. I learned that Gloria took her family back to Orange County. The program lost touch with her. I don’t know if Domenic was still involved, but I like to think he was.
What happened, exactly? The adults in his life changed their behaviors, and Jerry inevitably followed. Maybe, I speculate, if he had a different Kindergarten teacher, trained in different methods that encouraged his innate ways, none of this would have occurred. He certainly didn’t have a disability or disorder. That was clear, despite the insistence of doctors and educators. If so, where did this disability go?
No. This wasn’t a “learning disability,” or “ADHD,” or a “disorder” that needed “medical treatment” or some other flaw in Jerry. Instead, this common school experience points to a “teaching disability,” the most prevalent problem in modern day public and private education.
So, dear reader, maybe you know a child like Jerry. Maybe you’re raising one. Or, maybe, you were Jerry a long time ago, and school is a bad memory. It‘s a bad memory for way too many Jerrys – and Jills. I hope, and trust, by reading this much too common tale, at the least, you’re convinced, way back then, you weren’t sick. Most important, You’re Kids Aren’t Sick either.
[i] In the Mental Health System in California, an MHRS is the equivalent of a Social Worker.
[ii] Here’s a another example. After 10 minutes of arguing, a mother tells her 16 year old daughter, in no uncertain terms: “If you don’t get your room clean, I’ll take your cell phone!!” Her daughter quickly replies, with a sense of confidence mother doesn’t appreciate: “I don’t give a crap about my cell phone!,” and throws it at her mother as she does. Mom has been trumped. Now she’s stuck with her meaningless threat, a still unclean bedroom, and a phone she didn’t really want. Worse, there’s nothing she can do about it because, inadvertently, she gave her daughter a choice. Either clean your room or lose her phone. She made her choice, something else mother didn’t intend. She can expect more of the same tomorrow. Why? This kind of exchange “works” for her daughter.
Threats, in the middle of an argument, can become an exciting challenge for some kids, young and old. They either call your bluff, or they let you know they are willing to experience whatever punishment you can dish up, rather than clean that room. Children are famous for biting off their own nose. Some seem to cherish it. They think as long as you lose, they win. That’s why we call them children. And that’s why we should never argue or threaten, when giving directives to children. Ever.
[iii] The techniques we trained on are taken from Active Response Training (ART), my own creation. This was mandatory training for all professionals who worked at my facilities. Incorporated into ART are a dozen effective proactive and reactive strategies found and developed by Dr. David Keirsey. I will be following this story with a series of blogs about these techniques and how they are used for each temperament.)
[iv] Rule # 7: If it’s a question of whether to do what’s fun or what is supposed to be good for you, and nobody is hurt whichever you do, always do what’s fun.
See all of Harpo’s family rules here: http://harposplace.com/Family/FamilyStory.php