Thursday, January 15, 2015

His First Thank You (Updated)

 We have a child in our program who is very angry.  In fact, he tells us almost every day how angry he is.  He is angry because his siblings get all the attention, because we will only help him with his homework and not do it for him, because he doesn't want to do homework, and because we won't let him scream at or hit his sister.  Danny takes incredible patience to work with, because his most common reaction is to scream at the staff person who is helping him.  If he is not actively yelling, he is generally at least being rude.

We have been working very hard with Danny to help him name and manage his feelings.  We explain over and over that he can be angry and we understand that he is angry, but he cannot be rude or yell at people.  He usually responds by shouting, "But I'm angry!"

One of the tools that we've used for him is something I developed in my classroom and call a "feelings paper."  The kids can mark what they're feeling - everything from frustrated to angry to excited to happy to sad to nervous - and sometimes they choose all of the feelings.  Danny gave me a feelings paper at least once a day, maybe more, EVERY DAY for the first few months of this school year.  All of them said he was angry.  Usually in big, bold, capital letters.

I have been so proud of my young staff.  Although they are mostly in high school, they do not lose their tempers with him.  It's actually almost unbelievable how calm they are.  He yells at them and they respond politely.  He throws papers at them and they don't react.  They are continually patient and kind, far after many professional teachers would have lost their cool.  I think they really do understand that he's having a hard time and needs kindness modeled to him.

It's hard for any of us to believe that we are getting anywhere when children are this upset all the time.  So it felt pretty incredible to everyone when one of the staff got this card.  We have never heard Danny say thank you in any way.  We have never heard him acknowledge that we help him.  This was a wonderful sign that he does know, deep down, that we love him and we want him to succeed.  It is also a powerful testament to my staff for remaining calm and kind and truly showing Danny the love of God.

UPDATE: Since I've written this, there has been an incredible turnaround in Danny.  Many of the staff have commented that he "seems like a normal kid now."  What they mean by that is that he is not furious all the time.  He's no angel, but he is spending time playing instead of screaming, doing his homework most of the time, and usually not being rude to people.  When he is rude, if you pull him aside and talk to him, there's much less yelling and much more of a conversation.  He smiles a lot.  He takes compliments.  He usually doesn't hit his sister at Harbor House any more, and he uses the words "please" and "thank you."  He looks happy a lot of the time.  This is a complete turnaround.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Our Faithful Tutors

As the majority of our staff are teenagers and in high school, we try to help them be successful as they help our younger students.  This hep manifests itself in a number of ways, from parental nagging and instruction about homework and deadlines (some of them have parents who can't or are unable to do these things) to hands-on help with specific subjects.

For the latter part, we have a small army of wonderful, dedicated tutors.  They are friends or church members who have been recruited - many retired or with grown children so have a little more free time.  They help mainly with math but have stepped in with other subjects as well.  

Being teenagers, the students getting tutoring do not always have the best follow-through rate.  They want and appreciate the help, but things come up.  Parents schedule family dinners, students don't feel well, they forget their backpacks or other materials, or they decide at the last minute that they can do their homework themselves.  Whenever this happens, I talk to them about how the tutors have taken time out of their schedule and it's unfair to stand them up - sometimes these talks help, and sometimes they don't, but I think it's a learning process to see how your actions affect someone else, and we are all constantly learning.

At one point, I was emailing with some of our newer tutors who were deciding if we had a need for them.  When all of our students who said they needed help actually showed up, we definitely needed all the tutors.  When one or more came unprepared or not at all, we had tutors doubled up or sometimes sitting around.  I always felt bad for the tutors who weren't being fully utilized and hoped they didn't feel like we were wasting their time.  I emailed one of them and she wrote back:
To some degree we tutors are demonstrating to the staff the faithfulness of God. We can be there every week whether the staff is there or not. We can even faithfully be there on those days that the staff says they will be there and then does not arrive. This is especially important for young people who have not experienced that same dependability and faithfulness in their own families. From what you have mentioned, I suspect that Harbor House is that safe place, that dependable place for many of these young people. It is an honor for my husband and me to be included.
That is a beautiful sentiment.  I am so grateful for them and their faithfulness.  I do think that the staff will see their faithfulness, in retrospect if not now. And I hope it will reflect to them, how faithful God is.

Friday, January 9, 2015

His Safe Place

I went to pick up our students from school to walk them to Harbor House on Monday, the first day after Christmas break.  When the bell rang, "Jose" ran away from his classroom and straight at me.  "I missed you so much!!!" He shouted this and ran to me with his arms open wide, hugging me as hard as he could.

Jose is six years old and has a beautiful, kind, loving heart.  He also has a pretty hard life in a lot of ways.  His mom has four children: Jose, his 7-year old sister, his 11-year old brother, and his 14-year old sister.  Their mother, Val, suffers from chronic illness and is a single mother.  She works as a security guard, outside, in the cold and on her feet.  She is understandably exhausted.  The 14-year old picks up a lot of the parenting responsibilities, which is hard for everyone involved.

Jose had a very challenging year last year, both in class and with us.  We had to have him take breaks from our after-school program a few times because he ran into the street and behaved in other ways that were very unsafe.  Every time he came back, he would apologize profusely and be very remorseful, and then do the exact same thing.  His teacher was extremely frustrated with him and told me about it in detail every time I met with her.

This year, Jose is calming down soon and definitely trying as hard as he can.  He still has some issues, and we worked with the wonderful counselor at his school to give him services when he told me that sometimes he wants to be friends with someone but his brain tells him to bite them instead. . The counselor is, fortunately, a huge fan of Jose and loves working with him.  If you've ever wondered if approval makes a difference for a child, I told him yesterday that i had talked to his counselor and the counselor said, "He's such a nice boy."  Jose beamed like it was Christmas.

I am very optimistic about Jose's future, partly because he has so many people on his side, and partly because we are starting interventions so early.  Don't get me wrong, it is hard to be him.  And I think it's very hard to be his mother much of the time.  But she texted me last night and said, "Thank God for ppl like you and all hh staff with not only professionalism but passion and knowledge of understanding human nature and children's view."  She knows we will support her, we will love, support, correct, and praise her child, and that we are available to help find additional resources like counseling.  Jose doesn't sleep well or enough hours and often goes to the couch outside the offices at Harbor House to take a nap.  He literally eats, sleeps, plays, learns, and works at Harbor House, and that makes it very much of a home for him.

Like anyone else, I was a little reluctant to come back to work after Christmas vacation, but when I saw Jose's face light up and saw him run to me with his outstretched arms, I was reminded of how safe he feels with us and how long vacation must have felt for him without his safe place.  He's so happy to be back and we're so glad to have him.