By Molly Haig, AmeriCorps member serving on the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care team with Hennigan School
Header photo by John Card, AmeriCorps member serving on the Bain & Company team
Abe* is a 4th-grader with twinkling eyes and a kind smile. If you’re having a bad day, he’ll pat your back and assure you that tomorrow will be better. If his classmates seem down, he’ll stand up and do a little dance. Someday, he wants to be a basketball player, football player, professional videogame player, or “dog doctor,” but for now being the best 4th-grader he can is tough enough.
At the beginning of the year, Abe’s classmates teased him and he played along, not showing that he was hurt. Ms. L., the AmeriCorps member in Abe’s classroom, started meeting with Abe and his grandmother to talk about the situation. “Abe was really willing and really open to explaining what had happened,” Ms. L. said, so she began coaching Abe on how to start these conversations. They practiced saying “grandma, this is what happened at recess today. This is how it made me feel. These are the action steps that Ms. L. and I came up with so that it doesn’t happen again.”
This worked for a while, but then Abe began to overcorrect his behavior. He stood up for himself by making grand entrances into the classroom, shouting greetings and slamming doors. He began talking back to teachers, classmates and Ms. L. This made the conversations with his grandmother more difficult, and Abe was reluctant to speak. Still Ms. L. would remind him, “Abe, I think it will mean a lot more coming from your mouth.” When he shared, his grandmother would give him a big hug and thank him for his honesty.
Abe cares deeply about his relationships, and with Ms. L. and his grandmother’s help, he began using this deep caring to redirect his behavior. They figured out that Abe was good at taking care of people and things, and some day he might like to do that as his job—as a “dog doctor.” Abe drew a picture of himself caring for a dog, and taped it on the inside of his binder. When he’s tempted to call out or speak disrespectfully, he asks himself, “Will this help me to become a dog doctor?”
Ms. L. does not just connect with Abe’s grandmother over problems. One day in Abe’s after-school program, his behavior was ranked as “purple,” the highest ranking. Ms. L. and Abe were both bursting with pride, and his grandmother was delighted when she heard. His grandmother shared the news with everyone in their household, reinforcing the idea that Abe has a whole network of people who care about his struggles and successes.
This year, Ms. L. has been the link between Abe’s school life and his home support network, but she has done this in ways that he can carry on in the future without her. She has coached him about how to frame his school experiences when talking to his grandmother, and established the expectation that Abe and his grandmother will communicate every day.
There are still days with grand slamming entrances and disruptive silly dances, but with Ms. L. and his grandmother’s help, Abe is learning to take responsibility for his actions, and to rely on the people who care about him. With these habits in place, he is well on his way to becoming a “dog doctor,” or whatever career he chooses.
*Name changed to protect student privacy