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The power of 20 questions.

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“Are we going to play 20 Questions???” They started to ask me in the mornings, long before our daily social skills class. It became routine.

My goodness, I got so tired of 20 Questions! You know, the game where you take turns asking someone yes or no questions to guess what they are thinking about. (We kept the theme on animals, in order to avoid inappropriate topics. They never complained.)

There was other content meant to be covered during that class time. This simple game was originally supposed to be a little ice-breaker just to get the kids talking. It instantly became a favorite, surprisingly even with the oldest students (who of course flaunted their superior knowledge the whole time).

But as time went on, I began to understand more of the value in playing 20 Questions so often with these children, the ones who struggle socially, emotionally, and often academically. It wasn’t just about asking twenty questions. It was about…

Twenty pieces of conversation that were void of swear words or derogatory slurs…

Twenty opportunities to engage in active listening…

Twenty moments to practice critical thinking and memory skills…

Twenty chances to be honest…

Twenty times to focus on others…

Twenty invitations to work together with peers…

Twenty ideas for young imaginations to fly with…

Twenty challenges to break out of one’s shell…

Twenty sentences-worth of time where children who often live in unstable environments could breathe within an atmosphere of safety, structure, and predictability…

Twenty moments where nobody could truly fail…

Twenty chances to encourage a friend…

Twenty reminders to take turns and be patient…

Twenty opportunities to lead by example…

…Sometimes games, even the most simple ones…are the therapy that our behavioral beauties need most. It’s a chunk of time set aside to simply let them be children, and all that entails. While our students loved to bicker and it was not uncommon for them to get in verbal or physical fights with each other, 20 Questions was a sacred time to them. I really don’t remember one full-blown argument. It was a safety zone. A chance for each of them to breathe and be real, to laugh, to let down their guard, and to be a child…which is ultimately all I hoped for for them.

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Where we’ve come from

I was appalled to discover a few weeks ago the heart-wrenching story of my Great-Grandmother, who was admitted to a mental institution in the early 1930s while there was nothing apparently wrong with her. She died at the young age of 34, and was buried among the masses of other mistreated patients of the Central State Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma. We have no photos of her, no records of her…it is as if her memory was wiped from the planet.

We have come so far in the mental health field, yet have so far to go. In processing Great-Grandma Mabel’s story, I have become even more determined to see that those who struggle with real mental illness are treated rightly, that they are loved and cared for.

In Mabel’s time, mental health patients were treated almost worse than caged animals. They lacked proper care, living out their days in overcrowded concrete hallways with only a handful of doctors for every few hundred patients. One story says that in the hospital where Mabel passed away, patients had nothing to do but sit and stare at blank walls. They would be locked up for hours and hours, with no human interaction. The food was a joke, and the kitchen itself presented several health and safety issues which went unmet. Perhaps an early death was better for her than an estranged, lonely existence in such a dismal place.

As appalling as the story is, I feel it is important to preserve the memory of those who suffered unjustly in such a place. History can teach us many lessons. May we never allow others to suffer as these hundreds and thousands of patients suffered.

Please read the article, and let the dark past of humanity teach you the critical value of loving others, even those who are difficult to understand:

https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/access/TGBBGW.pdf

Reactions

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Kids are like sponges and mirrors at the same time. They will soak up their environment, and they will reflect the behaviors of those around them. They are pliable, elastic. They’re learning!

We teach our students about “big reactions vs. little reactions”. If someone is drowning in a pool, that deserves a big reaction. If you drop a book while walking down the hall, that really only needs a little reaction. A lot of times for kids, it is difficult to gauge how large or small of a reaction a given scenario deserves. My students in particular struggle with this. One difficult sentence in an assignment might throw them into a full-on temper tantrum, pencils flying, swear words echoing. They need help learning how to gauge their reaction size.

So, how is your reaction gauge?

When a child acts out…especially that one who ALWAYS seems to act out…what to you do? Thinking of children like mirrors, what are they learning to reflect?

I have had to master the art of ignoring, yet I still feel I have far to go. I can see my growth whenever I am standing on the opposite side of a door from a student who is throwing every object they can find at the window separating us–food being the least harmful of their ammunition. In those moments, I am able to ignore almost completely, giving absolutely no attention to the behavior that could otherwise be considered absolutely inappropriate and disrespectful. I am teaching my students how to gauge their reactions. While they are acting as if in a war zone, I am showing them that really there is nothing to fight about; my calmness invites them to breathe and calm as well.

When gauging your own reactions, consider the risks at hand. Usually risk is a good indicator of how much you should react. These potential risks invoke bigger reactions:

  • Harm to self
  • Harm to others
  • Destruction of property
  • A child putting themselves in a dangerous situation, such as running away

These risks may not need much of a reaction:

  • Disrespect
  • Making a mess
  • Distracting others
  • Yelling/Shouting
  • Crying

Now, at the same time, it’s important to think about how LIKELY a child is to act in a certain way. For example, I know children who could seriously harm me if they wanted to…but I do not think it very likely that they would, because their typical reaction is not to be violent. So, even though there is a risk of them harming me or another person, that risk is small because it is not very likely to happen.

A lot of kids react the same way to the same situation every single time. So you can know, this reaction will be very likely to happen.

When we as adults show big reactions to a child’s behavior, that behavior becomes a bigger problem than perhaps it was originally. And let’s be honest–a lot of the motivation in negative behavior is attempting to get a reaction out of someone.

One sure way to minimize negative behavior is to starve it of attention. Yes, some behavior requires a serious reaction. But sometimes, learning to ignore, breath, and stay calm, is the best way to influence a child’s behavior. Eventually, they may get bored with their acting-out because you don’t seem very excited by it. And then, that little human sponge will be ready to soak up all your positive attention and influence!

What My Students Teach Me about Healing

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Don’t get me wrong. I believe in healing. Even though I had to watch my baby cousin lose a fight to cancer after we had prayed for over a year for her healing. Even though I laid hands on a woman just to hear that she lost her battle against drugs one week later.

I’ve witnessed healing. I watched a lame girl’s legs straighten and saw her walk across the room for the first time. I saw a deaf man’s ears open. I met a boy who was dying of Malaria one day and sitting up eating lunch, perfectly healthy, the next.

Let me explain a bit about the type of students I work with, and the world I have chosen to enter. These children are the ones who have been turned away by multiple schools. Many people have given up on them. They have endured traumas that I cannot imagine. It’s not uncommon for them to be hospitalized. Most days seem like one step forward, and two steps backward. They are abused, battered, bullied, anxious, depressed, angry, with little hope for a normal childhood, much less a normal adulthood.

The problem here is that their brokenness is not a bone that can be set. It is deep, much too deep to see or fully understand. Often they do not even understand it. Healing doesn’t work for these kids.

There is something stronger needed, it is needed desperately. It is called LOVE.

Love is more powerful than healing.

I don’t know that my students necessarily want all their problems to magically disappear. They simply want to know that I will love them from one day to the next. That they can punch me, kick me, spit on me, bite me, throw chairs and desks at me, call me names, run away from me–and that I will still want to play Checkers with them or read them stories. They want to know that I love them, even WITH their problems and struggles.

Sometimes I feel like praying for healing is a manifestation of our fear of pain. It’s easier to pray that the pain goes away, rather than love someone through it and stand with them, feel the pain with them. Stepping into the life of someone who is struggling, loving them whether they are healed or not, is where true healing comes from.

Love IS healing. The greatest healing: the healing of hearts and souls.

Despite my doubts, I know that physical healing is real. I’ve seen it happen. But I’ve seen far more beautiful healing come through simple, daily, practical love.

Each day, let us choose to love others, no matter their brokenness. Every soul is worth being loved.