Be That One Caring Adult Each Child Needs
By Liz Garden
Have you heard educators talk about each child needing just one caring adult? If you have not listened to Josh Shipp tell his story and share this important message about connecting with kids, check out his website and video clip here.
In my twelfth year as an administrator, being the one adult for so many different kids is my absolute favorite part of the job.
When I was a classroom teacher, both at the secondary level and at the elementary level, I often found myself gravitating towards the kids that may have been more of a challenge than others. I wanted to figure out how to make a connection, how to break through, how to find a chink in their armor.
“I don’t like to smile and I don’t really care.”
Last year, I met a student who I knew had definitely spent some years layering on his armor. During one of my first interactions with him, he quickly told me, “I don’t like to smile and I don’t really care.” Not only did he have armor, he had a wall built up around himself, one that was physically visible as he often hid his face behind long hair and a hoodie.
On numerous occasions, he told me that he did not like smiling and did not want to be in any selfies with me. I love to tell our school story and sometimes that means taking selfies with kids. But not him. He did not want his story shared.
With all the pushing away that this student was doing, of course it made me want to try to pull him close. My first action step was to create time when I could be interacting with him when he was not in trouble or he wasn’t seeing me as an authority figure. I needed to be proactive instead of reactive.
The difference between react and respond
I attended a trauma informed workshop once, and I loved when the presenter had us think about the difference between the words react and respond. The idea of responding to this student, or any student for that matter, has a very different feeling than reacting to a student. Asking educators to visualize what those two words look like is a great activity to help anyone rethink how they engage with kids.
How could I respond to this student who needed that one caring adult? To help him with transitions and be proactive about his transition from school to home at the end of the day, I had him come to my office a few minutes early for dismissal. In the beginning, I let him use my office, explore it, roam around in it, without me in it. Slowly, I started popping in, chatting with him about what he discovered in my office.
Surprisingly, the first thing he started doing was counting up all of the pandas that he could find in my office. I have collected panda things since I was a little girl, and many of those items have made their way into my office. From calendars to stuffed animals to pens to tiny figurines. He looked forward to the challenge of trying to get a final count of exactly how many he could find.
Once he was comfortable being in my office and chatting with me, I learned a little bit more about him and his home situation which was a big part of why he had built up a wall around himself. But slowly, I could see parts of the wall coming down. One particular item of interest that he had discovered in my office was my giant treasure chest of sticky note pads. (I have a slight obsession with sticky notes!) This student loved that I had all different sizes and colors of note pads.
One day, he asked me if he could have one of the 3×3 sized notepads. He let me know that he loved to create flip books with sticky notes. You know flip books…where there is a drawing on each page and as you flip through the book, you see the drawings become animated? He began working on flip books as he waited in my office during dismissal.
And what I started to realize was that this kid had a serious talent. I shared this new information with his teacher and encouraged her to think about how we could tap into that skill and interest at different times in the school day. He started asking me if he could take a sticky notepad home and work on his flip books outside of school. Throughout the year, he created several different detailed flip books, and even though he has moved on to the middle school, I still have one of his creations that he let me keep.
As he continued to open up to me, I learned that this student had a favorite book, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. I had read that book and enjoyed it so we were able to have several different conversations about the book. As the principal, something I like to do is give every student a book on his or her birthday.
This student’s birthday was in the spring. I made sure that I had a copy of his favorite book on my birthday bookshelf when it was his day. He saw the book, picked it up, and said, “Is this really available to take?!”
When I reassured him that it was available, I said I thought he already had a copy at home. He said he had been reading a library book and then during the school day, the teacher had let him borrow a Kindle so he could read it on there. But this meant he could have his very own copy of his favorite book.
He hugged the book tightly, and I was even able to convince him to take a selfie with me. And he actually smiled for the photo! A giant grin as he proudly held up his book for all to see. In that moment, I felt that I had made a connection, I had broken through, I had found the chink in this kid’s armor. More importantly, I had become that one caring adult for this kid. He was smiling. He was taking pictures. He was telling his story. He was caring.
Fast forward to a year later. I had a new bunch of kids that I needed to focus on connecting with at my school. And that student had moved on to the middle school. Dusti Bowling, the author of his favorite book, wrote a sequel called Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus. She had come to a local bookstore and left several autographed copies of her new book. I made a point to drive several miles to go to that bookstore and buy two autographed copies of the book. One copy was for myself.
During a school day, I took the other copy and drove over to the middle school. I went to the principal and asked him to call that student down to the office. At first the student appeared in the office looking rather nervous. But then I began to explain that I had come to give him a gift.
I told him about the sequel and that I had bought an autographed copy for him. As I handed the book to him, he looked shocked, but then that look of shock turned into the biggest grin. He once again hugged the book tightly and thanked me. And of course, I asked him if we could take a selfie together!
Time, sticky notepads, and a favorite book
As Josh Shipp has said, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” I would like to think that I was able to play a small part in being one of hopefully many caring adults in that child’s life.
Personally, as an educator and a leader, I prefer to live by the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Do your students know how much you care? Especially those students who have built a wall or who come to school wearing their armor? I would challenge you to think of a child who needs that one caring adult. How can you be that person for him or her?
How can you connect and help tear down walls? You might discover that it comes down to a few simple things: time, sticky notepads, and a favorite book.
Liz Garden is the principal of the Dr. Leroy E Mayo Elementary School in Holden, MA. She has been an administrator for twelve years and taught at various levels for eleven years. Liz is one of the co-founders of a group called Moms As Principals and lives by the motto “All Kids Are Our Kids.”
Liz has presented about her love of reading and other topics at the MA Reading Association Conference, Literacy for All Conference, and the NAESP annual conference. She serves on the Scholastic Principal Advisory Board. You can connect with Liz on Twitter @PrincipalGarden and on Voxer @PrincipalGarden.