By: Joe Newman, Behavior Consultant
Paul was in the third grade when his grades began to slip. He was attentive in class and a good participant in class discussions but struggled with the reading and writing that was expected of him. In order to help Paul keep up he was often pulled out of non-academic activities (like art and music, which he excelled at) and given extra help in language.
By the start of fourth grade his attitude had shifted. Paul was getting into mischief in class, often interrupting the teacher and clowning around and joking during lessons. By the middle of the school year Paul had been sent to the principle several times for bullying other children. As a penalty for his bullying Paul was suspended from the after school baseball team.
Paul’s acting out in class, bullying, and negative attitude towards school seemed to be in a downward spiral. His parents and the school staff were at a loss as to how to turn things around.
As Paul’s academic struggles grew, his social status at school diminished. And, in their efforts to give him more help and deter his problem behaviors, teachers and parents inadvertently took away many of the remaining avenues he still had to feel powerful at school (like art, music, baseball). It is not surprising that, as his feelings of social power at school disappeared, Paul found less appropriate ways to feel social power.
As school budgets have been repeatedly cut they have eliminated art, drama, sports, woodshop, music, and auto mechanics while increasingly emphasizing academics. This means that avenues for demonstrating social power at school are becoming limited to those students who thrive academically. In the past, these other activities offered students who weren’t the best academically the opportunity to find and demonstrate other skills within the school community.
Children are drawn to social power more than to what they’re told is right or wrong. I’ve noticed that many children who struggle at school are more attracted to the villains in comics and movies than to the heroes. This is because children who don’t see themselves being successful heroes relate to anti-heroes. At least anti-heroes are powerful.
As Paul’s father Dan watched his son’s escalating difficulties, he considered that maybe his son wasn’t so different from himself. He had struggled in school and it was only after he’d graduated and found a job on a film crew that he began to find his own talent. Over the years Dan had worked his way up to become a successful director of photography.
He decided that maybe his son didn’t need to wait until he was in his twenties to find his talents. He knew that Paul was interested in making movies and his class would be studying the founding fathers in the months after their spring break, so he approached him with a plan. They would make a film together about one of the founding fathers.
Paul chose Ben Franklin and recruited some friends to play the various roles in the film. During the first week of spring break (Dan was on hiatus) they shot the movie and during the second week Dan coached Paul through the editing process.
When Paul returned after the break he gave the film to his teacher as a special project. To his teacher’s credit she not only showed the film in class, but also arranged to have it shown in the other fourth grade classes and even at a school wide assembly. At each showing Paul was asked to talk to the audience about how he and his friends made the 15-minute movie. His teacher even arranged for him to go with his father and show the movie at two neighboring elementary schools.
Paul was so busy and proud of the film he’d made and his new found notoriety at school that the bullying and class antics stopped completely. In the months that followed his participation and attitude at school made a big turn around.
When children find something they’re good at, something they like, or something they can contribute, they also find their place in a community. When children have a legitimate place, they’ll have no need to find power through hurting other children and bullying.