Q: I never seem to get that unicorn — a parent who holds realistic expectations for their non-gifted child, or who readily agrees to put their troubled kid in therapy, or who understands that public school teachers can only differentiate so much. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. I’m writing specifically about a 5th-grade child in my homeroom who seems drawn to really dark topics, and who doesn’t seem to have any real friends, and who often goes off the rails over the tiniest provocation. His unpredictability bothers me the most. I never know if I’ll get “Adam the diligent student” or “Adam the psycho chair thrower.” I’m sure the other kids feel the same way. I don’t blame them for keeping their distance. He watches a lot of violent and inappropriate movies, which I’m sure doesn’t help. I try to handle most of his outbursts in the classroom, because my principal doesn’t impose any consequences anyway, and the kid just ends up missing even more instruction.
Here’s the bonkers part. Adam’s parents are totally unconcerned. It doesn’t matter if I tell them he sounds like a freak, or that he’s talking about beheadings in a monotone, or that’s he’s drawing illustrations of dead people in a pit. (To be fair, his pictures are actually quite good.) His parents don’t seem to care or even believe that he’s friendless. They’re not at all open to getting him therapy. Adam knows I’ve handed over some of his more disturbing pictures to his counselor, but the counselor says his hands are tied because the boy is doing fine academically. And although Adam occasionally loses control and hurls something or runs down the hall, he’s yet to lash out at anyone in particular. No one has gotten hurt . . . yet. Maybe it’s the current climate and everyone’s fear of missing that one kid who grows up to be a school shooter, but I’m not satisfied with how things currently stand. What would you do in my position?
A: You’re possibly the person best positioned to help Adam. It would be great if he saw a therapist, but they’d likely only see him for one hour a week in their office. You, on the other hand, are part of his daily life. You see how he engages (or doesn’t engage) with peers, what sparks his interest and what puts him over the edge. So spend some time getting to know him. Invite him to lunch with a couple of kind classmates, greet him in the hall by name, call on him frequently, and ask about his weekend. It doesn’t really matter whether you play tic-tac-toe or talk about his favorite scary movie. Just work on building trust. Adam needs to bond with non-parental adults, particularly because his parents sound out of touch and his classmates have rejected him.
Along those lines, do whatever you can to restore Adam’s reputation among his peers. Give him leadership roles where he’s likely to shine. He likes to draw, so assign him the role of “illustrator” in a group project, then publicly praise his work. I give you credit for not sending him to the principal every time he acts out, but you’re using words like “psycho” and “freak” to describe him, so he probably knows you’re judging him. Kids miss very little. Even if you don’t end up liking Adam after getting to know him better, you’ll feel more invested. You’ll also be in a position to collect additional data. You’ve shared observations about his behavior and relationships, but you don’t seem to know much about his background or home life. Those missing pieces are important.
I’d also be intentional about your responses to Adam’s misbehavior. After he throws something, wait for him to settle down, then pull him aside. Talk to him calmly. Say, “I know I wouldn’t like feeling angry enough to throw a chair. Something must have really upset you. I’d like to help.” No one likes losing control. You might find that Adam is open to signaling when he needs a break, whether he doodles or gets a glass of water. If he won’t open up verbally, tell him you admire his art and ask him to draw you a picture. It could be revealing. Or talk to him about one of his illustrations (but conceal your horror at the subject matter).
As for the counselor, I’m guessing he was indicating that Adam wouldn’t qualify for special education services, but I’m not sure why he thinks his hands are tied. He could spend time with him and teach him coping strategies. He also could draw up a behavioral contract and chart his progress, or convene a team meeting with the administrator, all of his teachers and his parents. If his parents see that other adults in the school share your concerns, they might be more responsive. But you can’t control what anyone else chooses to do, so start by adjusting your own behavior. The good news is that the simplest gestures are often the most impactful.
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