It’s so easy, tempting, and perhaps even automatic for adults to label children. It’s equally easy not to notice how labeling puts kids into particular boxes that over time, they conform to and identify with. Did that ever happen to you?
The following real-life story is taken from How to Talk so Kids Can Learn At Home and In School, and highlights one teacher’s experience as she tries to break away from one child’s labels and see him in a new light.
“Darryl Jackson was a large, obnoxious ten-year-old, twice as big as anyone else in my class. Because of his size you expected him to be more mature, but he behaved like a big, loud, goofy fool. He’d bop the other kids on the head, shove them, fling himself around, run out into the hall yelling ‘Arrghh!’ if he heard someone coming. Anything to get attention. If that didn’t work, he’d start talking in a loud voice about ‘titties’ and ‘doo-doo’.
The kids didn’t like him, either. He was always putting them down: ‘You didn’t know that? You’re stupid!’ On the bus for a school trip, he’d insist on taking up two seats for himself. In the lunchroom he’d gobble his sandwich and stick out his tongue with half-chewed food still on it and laugh.
I found myself saying his name over and over again with increasing annoyance: ‘Darryl, stop it!… Darryl, be quiet!’ Sometimes I’d physically push him back into his seat: ‘Darryl, I said SIT DOWN!!!’
The underlying message in my voice was ‘I don’t like you… Your very presence annoys me… You are my irritant!‘
Once, I became so exasperated with him I made a gesture of tearing my hair out. Darryl’s eyes lit up with pleasure. With a big grin he said, ‘I’m driving you crazy, right, Mrs. Bergen?’ He had achieved his goal. And not only with me. Every teacher in the school knew his name and they all hated him. At the lunch table they’d trade Darryl stories. He had succeeded in making himself famous throughout the school. It was almost funny in a horrible sort of way…
I knew that if there was going to be any small possibility of Darryl changing, I would have to change my tactics. But I also realized that I couldn’t just do it mechanically. I had to find at least one quality in Darryl that I genuinely liked or admired. Without some real feeling for the child, the whole process would be an exercise in manipulation. Maybe that would be better than nothing, but I was hoping for more.
The next day I watched Darryl like a hawk. His one saving grace was that he was talented at drawing. He could look at any object and reproduce it accurately. I saw Felix call him over to show him his drawing. Felix has poor hand-eye coordination and his drawing was barely decipherable. Nevertheless, he pointed to his squiggly lines and told Darryl, ‘Look, here’s the man about to shoot the dinosaur.’
I thought Darryl would make fun of him, but instead he just smiled good-naturedly and pointed to the squiggles and said encouraging things like ‘Yeah, and here’s an alien coming down in a spaceship.’ That touched me. So Darryl could be sweet. Even generous! Maybe it was because he felt so secure in the area of art.
From that moment on I launched my ‘campaign of positivity’. I started by choosing Darryl for small tasks like cleaning the chalkboard or putting away the World Books in alphabetical order or feeding the turtle, and then thanking him for helping me. It turned out that Darryl liked animals. I put him in charge of the hamsters for the week and told him that the animals seemed to love it when he held them because he was so gentle. He beamed.
Then I went to work on helping the other kids in the class see him differently. Whenever someone needed help, I’d say, ‘Oh, get Darryl to show you how that works. He’s good at fractions.’ Or ‘Darryl, you know a lot about animals. What kind of dog would make a good watchdog?’ I was hoping they’d think since the teacher didn’t see him as a pest anymore, maybe he wasn’t.
Whenever I absolutely had to reprimand him, I tried to preface it with something positive: ‘Darryl, I know how hard it is to wait, but Felix needs to finish what he’s saying.’ Or ‘Darryl, I know it isn’t easy to control the urge to get out of your seat, but right now I need everyone sitting down and paying attention.’ After a while Darryl started saying things like ‘See, Mrs. Bergen, I’m controlling myself!’ Or ‘See, I waited my turn.’ Or ‘I wanted to jump up, but I didn’t.’ And I’d always respond quickly and warmly, ‘I noticed that.’ Or ‘That was hard to do.’ Then I started writing short notes to his mother:
Dear Mrs. Jackson,Darryl has been in charge of our class pets this month and all the animals are clean, well fed, and happy.Sincerely, Mrs. Bergen
From these small changes in my behavior came large changes in Darryl’s. He became very affectionate toward me. He stopped annoying, shoving, and teasing the other kids. He was always jumping up to help someone draw or read or carry. When his new friend, Felix, had no money for a class trip, Darryl became despondent and later in the week lent him the money. He became a team player. The enemy of everyone became the friend of everyone. He shared his sandwich, candy, anything. He was Mr. Sociability. He was still loud and abrasive, but now those qualities were combined and tempered with socially desirable traits.
The other teachers became aware of Darryl’s feeling for me and used it to control his behavior. They’d say, ‘If you don’t stop that, I’ll tell Mrs. Bergen,’ and he’d stop on a dime. He didn’t want anything bad about him to get back to me.
But in the end his new behavior never did carry over to the other teachers. They still didn’t like him, and he wasn’t going to go out of his way to be cooperative or pleasant with people who treated him like a big nuisance. You couldn’t intimidate Darryl into behaving better if he felt you didn’t care. You had to appreciate him to get appreciation from him.”
What do you take away from Darryl’s story?