I was just going to breeze in and out of CamdenForward School, our elementary grades at UrbanPromise, to fax something and grab my paycheck. Then the plan was to bury myself again in my mile long ‘to-do’ list, the weight of which was interrupting my sleep with increasing frequency. But the fax machine is in the main office…and the main office has a picture window…and as I pressed buttons I heard, “Oh there’s Mrs. Becky! Maybe she can talk with Josiah.” Despite my boundary setting intentions I asked what was up: Josiah, who is usually quiet, was having a no good, very bad day. His concerned teacher said he had been irritable and out of sorts all morning, and when one of his classmates teased him, he lost it, saying angry things and hiding in a corner. Josiah stood next to her crying, upset at the thought of us calling his mom. Despite assurances that he wasn’t in trouble, his anger ratcheted up again after a conversation with her, he began pacing and muttering under his breath and it was evident that rational, soothing words were not having their desired effect. “Josiah, want to go outside and walk around the playground? We do not have to talk. Let’s just walk.” Big brown eyes caught mine and he nodded. Out we went, his steps quickly outdistancing mine as he began to circle the playground. “You all say ‘everything will be all right’ but it won’t. I’m in trouble I know it. You think I’m crazy right? But I’m not crazy and it’s not fair.” Round and round he went, with me in the middle staying just close enough to grab him if he darted. I didn’t say much other than to affirm his venting. I was just beginning to wonder if I was nuts or if this trauma-informed approach would work when he stopped, looked at me and said, “Mrs. B you’re nice. Do you want to go on the see-saw with me?” “Why I’d love to, Josiah!” Up and down we went, he astutely (ahem) noting that I weigh a lot more than he…and having a good talk about stress. I asked a few careful questions, not wanting to trigger him again, but it was increasingly clear that he had exited his emotional brain for his rational one. He stopped the see-saw, cracked a smile and said, “it’s a beautiful day out here isn’t it? Perfect weather.” God bless this kid. After a few more minutes we came up with a plan on how to handle any more stressful moments in class that day…he would “pause on his paws”, that is feel his hands and feet, squeeze them tight and relax them, then take a deep breath to stay in control. He liked that. He was able to return to class and was calm the rest of the day.
After school we walked to meet his mom, and unsolicited he expressed deep gratitude for my kindness. “I know now that if I hold my emotions in they are going to make me sick. It’s good to let them out.” Such wisdom from the mouth of a babe! I told him how intelligent and wise he was, and that it was an honor to spend time with him.
This all could have gone so differently. In the not too distant past when a student lost control in class he or she would be punished or suspended, beginning a vicious cycle of defiance against classroom expectation. But when a child is stuck in the emotional brain, he or she is not in control and it’s up to us to help them get to the rational brain – by physically moving, by practicing a mindful meditation, by prayer. Josiah ended the day knowing that he is loved by his family and school, that it is healthy to feel emotions, not shameful (something else he shared) and that he can learn to express himself in a way that won’t feel out of control. What potential lays in learning this in elementary school! Feels hopeful, doesn’t it?