Usually, when I’m at the pool with my kids, my attention is focused on watching dives, adjusting goggles, and re-applying sunscreen. Last week, however, I had the great pleasure of talking to a teacher while we watched my 5-year old perform a series of Lemon Drops and Cannonballs into the water.

The conversation started because my little pool jumper is a total extrovert and has never met anyone who wasn’t a friend. She introduced herself to the adults around her, including to the teacher with whom I then began a conversation. In the course of talking about the joys of working with young kids, the veteran teacher shared with me many of the challenges she has faced over the years. One story, in particular, reminded me of the truism we always teach in Life Space Crisis Intervention training:

“The problems kids cause are not the causes of their problems.”

The story went something like this:

A Kindergarten class was doing an exercise to reinforce their learning about colors and reading. The assignment was to color each section of a pre-printed worksheet according to the proper color word listed in each space.

When the teacher approached one student to check his work, she noticed that he had colored with green crayon in a section marked “blue.” She quietly sat down next to him and said, “Here, I’ll help you color over the green to make this section blue.” The boy stiffened. He allowed the teacher to help him color the section, but when she turned her back and walked away to help the next student, he crumpled the paper into a ball.

The teacher recounted to me a moment of anger—a spontaneous welling up of emotion in which the first thoughts she had were about the child’s defiance. She described how easy it was to come to the conclusion that the child was disrespectful and disobedient—a problem-student in the making.

She also told me that despite being overcome by her initial thoughts, something stopped her from reacting aloud. On that day, in that moment, the teacher told me about how she had a flash of insight and realized that this little boy—an otherwise bright, creative kid—was a perfectionist who was not acting out of defiance, but out of compulsion to get things exactly right. In his all-or-nothing world, coloring over a shade of green with a blue crayon was not okay; only coloring with blue would make his paper right.

The teacher told me that instead of raising her voice or demanding that the child uncrumple his original paper and begin again, she quietly gave him a new worksheet and allowed him to start fresh.

As she re-counted the whole story, she told me what a landmark moment it was in her career. Through a simple act of looking beyond a child’s overt behavior and tuning in to the emotion that was driving it, she said she turned around a relationship that had been suffering for the first three months of the school year.

I am always in awe of teachers and the incredible challenge they take on of meeting the individual academic, social, and emotional needs of each of their students, every day. I was so particularly impressed and touched by this teacher who was able to decode her student’s behavior with accuracy and compassion, and begin the process of forging a positive relationship out of what had been a flailing student-teacher connection. As she concluded her story, the teacher noted that this student—the one that challenged her the most early on in the school year—became her greatest teacher.


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