Teaching With Joy

December 2003


Working With Troubled Students
by Joy Jones

     "Jerry" was a teenager who hung out with the drug crowd at his school. He wore the 'uniform' of the drug dealers - baggy pants, hat on backwards, designer gym shoes. He used their slang and speech patterns. If it quacks like a duck and acts like a duck, it must be a duck, right?

     Not always. In this case, Jerry had been taken from regular school, and sent to The Foundation School, a therapeutic special education school. Dr. John Meeks, child psychiatrist and author of the classic text, The Fragile Alliance, worked with Jerry. What he found out was that Jerry had adopted the drug dealer persona but did not use or sell drugs at all. So why the front? "'How do you expect me to get chicks?'" he told Meeks.
"Image was so important to him," Meeks said. "I had to explain to him there's more than one way to be a man. There are other kinds of courage."

     Trying to help students learn other ways and make other choices is the mission of The Foundation Schools, located in the metropolitan Washington, DC area and which Meeks founded in 1975. Educators can gain ideas from their approach in teaching students who have emotional problems. The philosophy of The Foundation Schools is to forge a therapeutic partnership between the student and the adults who are educating and treating that student. "An effort is made to bring the child on board," explained Meeks who emphasized that this requires a high level of collaboration and mutual support among the adults. "We try to build an interdisciplinary team that really cooperates with each other rather than defends their turf."

     He pointed out that "an experienced paraprofessional often knows more than a first year social work student" and that each school employee's role, skills and knowledge base must be respected.

     And of course, this respect is applied to interaction with the children.
"Not only do the staff have to respect each role and their [colleagues']
roles, but the student, too. " said Phillippe Dupont, Ed.D, development
director at the Foundation School. "We respect the student's role."

     Meek's experience has helped him identify several mistakes that
educators and mental health professionals sometimes make when working with youth. The first mistake is that adults sometimes assume a student's bad behavior is an attack on the teacher or counselor.

     "'The kid is lashing out at me'," said Phillipe Dupont, Ed.D., voicing what
a teacher or counselor might be thinking. "’They're supposed to respect
me for my education or my teaching skills.’" Dupont explains that the reality is the child is struggling with his or her own issues and the adult's credentials or concerns don't mean anything to the student.

     Dupont recalled an encounter he had with a depressed, sixteen-year-old
girl who would come for counseling every week but would just sit, uncommunicative, for the entire session. Only after many of these mute, sullen sessions, she finally began talking a little, then eventually opened up and it was discovered that she was a fabulous writer. Dupont reported that she later thanked him for his patience by telling him, "You never gave up on me."

     "The second most common mistake is to listen to what they say rather than watch what they do," said Meeks. Undoubtedly, you have experienced this scenario: a boy is dribbling a ball in the hallway and the constant bouncing is driving you crazy. You ask the teenager to stop. But he doesn’t stop - at least not right away. Meeks says that the teen's need to bounce the ball once more is to show you they can't be bossed around. “The adolescent then says, ‘I'm bored with this’ and stops. Completely his idea.” Or so you let him believe.

     "Hope is the crucial fuel", said Meeks. "Hope for many children starts when someone believes in them. "Gradually, the child begins to see that he can believe."


Joy Jones is a third generation teacher, a playwright and the author of Between Black Women: Listening With the Third Ear, the acclaimed children’s book, Tambourine Moon, and Private Lessons: A Book of Meditations for Teachers.  You may view her web site at: www.JoyJonesOnline.com.

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