Joey came into camp a few days ago, dressed in his normal shorts and t-shirt. It was “Superhero” day at camp, and many campers and staff were wearing various superhero shirts or capes. Theme days are not Joey’s thing, nor have they ever been. He observed what everyone was wearing, and told me, “I didn’t wear a superhero shirt.” I nodded, and reminded him that was okay.
He looked around, and then came back to me, saying, “People who didn’t wear superhero clothes are stupid.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Are you kind of wishing you had worn a superhero shirt?”
“Yes.” he nodded.
“So, you could say, ‘I’m a little disappointed I didn’t dress up today.'” I offered.
“Yeah,” he replied, and went up to his group leader, saying, “I kinda wish I had dressed up today.”
Two kids in Joey’s group hadn’t arrived yet. Joey asked me where they were and I told him they weren’t there yet.
“They’re sick.” He stated. “They got hit by a car. They’re dead. I hate them anyway.”
“Do you feel nervous because you’re not sure where they are?” I asked.
Later, once they had shown up, he told them, “I didn’t know where you were! Are you sick?”
Two options are present during free time after lunch. Part of the group is playing a soccer game and part is batting a beach ball back and forth. Joey is deciding what to do. He chooses soccer, then beach ball, and finally decides on soccer.
“Besides,” he tells me, “Beach ball is dumb anyway. I hate it. So it’s fine to choose soccer. Because people who play beach ball are dumb losers.”
“You know what? It’s okay to like both, and just pick one. Because another day, you could play beach ball. You can like both things.” I suggested.
“True,” he nodded. He ran over to the group. “I’m going to play soccer today and beach ball another day!”
The thing is, I know Joey really well. I can predict his every move, and I know exactly what he is thinking and when there is a disconnect between his thoughts and the words that come out of his mouth. It’s not always that easy, especially when it’s a new kid that we’re working with.
But the idea remains the same. That words are not always reliable for our kids – special ed kids, kids on the spectrum, kids with ADHD, kids with language disorders. Especially in an emotional moment, not all words are accessible. Have you ever been so mad that you just freeze because you can’t even get any words out of your mouth?
Sometimes when kids say one thing, they’re trying to tell us something else. Sometimes when a kid looks like they’re being rude, disobedient, or defiant, they’re really feeling a myriad of other emotions and don’t have access to those concepts to tell us. And yes – sometimes kids are being those things. But the idea is that we don’t jump to that conclusion right away. We think through the options first. We consider their profile, their neurology, their diagnoses. We wonder if their behavior is telling us something. We wonder if they are using those words as a placeholder to convey something else. We check in with them. We offer them language and see if they take it. More often than not, you’d be surprised – a kid will take the words you give them if they match, and won’t take them if they are an inaccurate portrayal of what they’re feeling.
If I had handled any of those 3 situations by telling Joey, “That is unacceptable behavior, you need a time out, you can’t say things like that,” nothing would have been accomplished. And of course – we still do process and explain. We give him friendly words to say instead of unfriendly/mean ones. We explain, “When you say ‘I hate them anyway’ it makes me think you’re trying to be mean. Are you?” If a mean comment is directed towards a kid, we explain to him why he needs to apologize, and what it might make the other kid think when he says mean words. We process, over and over again, the different ways to express feelings and thoughts, trying to build new neurologic and linguistic connections.
But we don’t punish. Because what’s the point? When the reason for the seemingly hurtful words is actually a lack of ability to express oneself, we need to teach strategies for accessing those words and concepts. And appreciate that they are even attempting to communicate in the first place.