When I started working at East Midvale Elementary I think even I was skeptical of the powerful influence we could have on a student’s life. So when I met a 6th grade student named Mark, I had no idea what we could do to help. Mark struggles in his personal life and in return Mark has a hard time behaving at schools. He has a deep dread of appearing bad at something and acts out to get attention.
When I first arrived at recess, I immediately started with the basic core games of the playground: switch, foursquare, jump ropes, etc. and Mark immediately fell in love with playing four square. He played every recess, and even still, several months later, he rarely misses an opportunity to play his favorite game. The problem was that every time Mark would get “out” he would throw a tantrum. He hated appearing weak, or bad at his favorite game. He would curse, call other students names, and even throw or drop kick the equipment. First, I tried working with Mark by talking him through his tantrums to no avail. Then, I hopped into the game, to not only monitor him, but to also help model the proper behavior to him and the other students for how to graciously accept getting “out.” Finally, I changed the dialogue from “out” to “back in line.” With effort and a little time the whole playground was consistently using “back in line” instead of “out”, but it still didn’t help Mark.
One day, I noticed Mark sitting outside his portable on the steps looking upset. Over the years Mark has learned to separate himself from the triggers that make him upset. He does this because his response is to physically try and make people see it his way. Over time he has learned techniques to avoid physical confrontations, with the result being that he self-segregates from the group and essentially alienates himself from his peers.
I asked “What’s going on Mark? Aren’t you supposed to be in class?”
His usual response was “Meh.” followed by audible grumbling sounds that were impossible to decipher.
I tried again, “Mark, what’s up bud? How’s your day?”
This time it was “Not Good.”
WHAT! I couldn’t believe that the Fort Knox of students actually talked to me while he was in his bad mood. This never happened.
I continued, “What’s the problem?”
“Everyone is a bunch of cheaters. I hate playing with them ‘cause they always say I’m back in line when I know I’m not.”
This was awesome. (obviously not that he assumed everyone was cheating and/or against him, but that he was actually talking about what was making him upset) I told him to wait just a second and poked my head into his class to ask his teacher, Miss Bergeson, if Mark could help me clean up the playground equipment in hopes of keeping him talking. She agreed that it could help so I asked Mark if he would help me out.
While collecting the equipment, we continued to talk about the problems he was having with his peers and how to handle certain situations. It was then that Mark finally opened up to me. We talked about his pending Junior Coach application and how, unfortunately, due to his behavior at recess and in the classroom, Mark was unable to be considered for the program. I could tell he was bummed and frustrated and before we could close our conversation the bell rang signaling the end of the day and he had to leave to catch his bus.
The next day, I not only overheard Mark bragging to his friends that he got to help me clean up at the end of the day, but he approached me to ask if he could help again. At that moment the idea hit me like Floyd Mayweather…why couldn’t Mark help me at the end of every day?