A Challenging Kindergarten Student
by Wafa Saed
My first job right out of student teaching was a leave replacement in a bilingual kindergarten classroom. I was really excited about the position and could not wait to begin. I got to meet my assistant a day before I started. She told me that the children are very tough, and I needed to be very strict with them. I remember thinking, “What did I get myself into?”
Nonetheless, the next day I went in with a clear and confident attitude. I had 17 children, all of whom just recently arrived to the United States, most from Spanish-speaking countries. Each child seemed to be cooperating with the exception of Alexander who refused to cooperate with all the activities. I did not want to pressure him on the first day, so I let him sit on his desk and told him to come join us when he was ready.
My assistant immediately began yelling at him. I kindly told her to leave him alone for a few minutes. She then came up to me and whispered in Spanish “Este niño hay que gritarle, o va hacer lo que el quiere.” (“You need to yell at this child or he will do what he pleases.”) I told her I did not believe in yelling and thought the child might need a little more time adjusting to a new teacher.
The days that followed were very challenging. Alexander refused to come to circle time, and he would run around the room while I was reading a story. He would pull girls’ hair while we were lining up. He would refuse to go to specials by sitting on the rug. I knew that I had to act quickly; his behavior was disrupting the flow of the classroom.
The first thing that I did was to send him to time-out when he misbehaved. Time-out worked wonders during student teaching, and I thought it would solve this too. Boy, was I wrong! When I sent Alexander to time-out, he would start yelling out “Que me importa? Que me importa?” (“I don’t care, I don’t care”.) This was not working; time for another strategy.
My second choice was positive reinforcement. I would constantly praise Alexander when he was on task. This worked for about two days, and then the misbehaving continued. One of my biggest concerns was when he would try to hit other children. Due to this continuing behavior, I decided to involve the parents.
I had a meeting with his mom and explained how his behavior was unacceptable. The mother was 7 months pregnant, and when I told her about her child’s behavior, she burst into tears. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what did I do?” I remained firm, and told the parent that I was here to help the child. I expressed my concerns and asked for her support.
She then began to tell me that Alexander’s father would beat her. She said that Alexander witnessed the beatings and was probably taking his anger out in school. She told me she did not know what to do or where to turn. I assured her again that I was there to help and would do everything I could to help her.
After she told me this, I knew I could not handle the situation on my own, and I needed help from the administration and social worker. I asked Alexander’s mom for permission to involve the administration. She said she was willing to tell the principal everything. The principal reported this to the police, and about a week later, Alexander’s father was put in jail. I knew that this would not solve Alexander’s behavior, and I began to mentally prepare for the weeks that followed his father’s arrest. (The mother was not left to fend for herself. The principal and the social worker spoke to her about different organizations that help battered women. I don’t know more details than this because they always kept everything confidential and would not tell me much.)
Alexander’s misbehavior continued to escalate. I knew I had to do something different, but was not exactly sure what. He had obviously witnessed a lot more than he could handle at the age of five.
The first thing I did was have a class meeting. I gathered all the children on the rug. I told them to sit in a big circle with me. I had prepared a long list of things I wanted to discuss, but as soon as I saw them all sitting on the rug, I decided to ask what they wanted to be when they grew up. Answers included firefighter, nurse, doctor and superman. I then asked Alexander what he wanted to be, and he replied, “Quiero ser policia”. (I want to be a policeman.) I asked him why. He said “Agarrar gente mala,” (to catch bad people.” The other boys began saying they wanted to policemen too.
I asked the children to think about what makes a person good. They said things like “helping your friend,” “getting your friend a tissue when he’s sick,” “listening to the teacher”. I then asked what makes a person bad. They said “when you hit your friends,” “when you don’t listen to the teacher.” We then began to talk about police, and how their job is supposed to be to keep us safe and to help us when we are in trouble. I told the class that a friend of mine was a policeman and that I was going to invite him in to talk to us about his job.
I arranged for him to come in a few days later, and he spoke about his job and ways he tries to help people. The children were very polite. At the end of his discussion, he gave each child a plastic badge. He told them that they did not have to wait until they got older to be a police officer. They could be one in the classroom.
I helped the children to understand that for them to be a “police officer”, they would have to do their best to help one another. I decided to add “police officer” to our jobs chart. Every week, one child had a turn. If the child misbehaved, this privilege would be taken away. I explained this new role: children would take their cue from me. For example, if I asked for the class to pay attention, their job would be to quietly remind whoever was still talking, to stop. If I asked children to line up quickly and some were fooling around, the “police officer” would politely tell them to hurry up.
Alexander was the first to be chosen. Throughout the whole week his behavior changed dramatically. He started to come to circle time on his own. He started keeping his hands to himself. If he saw that other children were not on track, he would tell them. At the end of his week as policeman I told the class how proud I was of his behavior. I gave him a certificate saying “Job well done.” I then told him I was going to write a letter to his mom telling her I was proud of how he carried out his job. His facial expression was beyond description.
I knew my struggle was not over yet. I realized what Alexander needed was a little more attention. He also needed to use his energy in a positive way. I constantly used Alexander as a helper in the classroom. I would say, “Alex, I need your help, but you need to behave.” When I noticed that he was beginning to drift off task, I would remind him how “policemen” are supposed to behave.
Some of the children began to complain that I was always picking Alexander to do jobs more than them. We had a class meeting about this when Alexander was out of the room. I explained that the reason I gave him more jobs than other children is that he had some problems and was not very happy. I described how I noticed they were ignoring him, which I understood because he had not been nice to them, but that I would be happy if they would invite him to participate with them during center time. I said that I would be proud of them if they could do this, and that I thought that it would help Alexander improve.
The children rose to the occasion. They began to be nicer to him, and I would whisper in their ears, “Thank you for helping Alexander. I am proud of you.” This made them want to help him more. I also got support from the principal, who would come each morning to where my class had lined up and ask how Alexander was doing. When I told him that Alexander was improving, he would give him a hug. Alexander looked forward to this. In addition, the social worker took him out of class regularly to talk with him.
I made some changes in my daily routine. At the beginning of each day, I would take 5-10 minutes during the morning meeting to allow children to express themselves and talk about how they were feeling. We would sing songs throughout the day about feelings and friendship. This helped them to feel safe, loved, and comfortable coming to school.
By the end of the year, I was really impressed with Alexander’s behavior. He was always on task. He learned to use his words when he was angry. He went from an “I don’t care” attitude to “Ms. Saed, what are we doing next?” I felt so blessed that I was able to change the way this young child dealt with his emotions.
The day of the children’s graduation my assistant came up to me, and told me “Yo no se como lo hiciste, sin gritarle ni mandarlo a la oficina, pero te felicito.” (“I don’t know how you did it without yelling at him or sending him to the office, but I just wanted to congratulate you”.)
I remember feeling so content. I was able to trust my instincts and choose other methods rather than yelling and screaming. I will always strive to become a teacher who is remembered for her kind words, not for her screaming voice.