Questions for Upsetting Times
I saw something upsetting this week. I wasn’t sure whether or not I should tell you about it, but I decided that we learn a lot not just from good things, but bad things too. It was a brief incident that highlighted greater concerns at the individual, local and national level.
From the clinic room, you could hear young voices swearing in the hallway. The third and fourth grade students had finished lunch and were waiting for recess. A group of boys were standing together near the first grade and kindergarten classrooms. They were talking loudly and using profanity.
A teacher walked up to the boys without them noticing. When the boys finally saw her, the group became divided. Half of the boys stopped talking, and then made “ooooh” noises, which likely represented “you’re in trouble.” The other half of the boys began to swear louder and dance around. Suddenly, they stopped swearing and switched to racially-based imitations of a foreign language, used in mocking attribution to the racial background of teacher.
The teacher attempted to learn their names, but they all ran off down the hallway and out the door to recess. She followed them from a distance. When she finally reached a few of them, she said, “There are little children in the classrooms. They can hear you. You need to be quiet when you are by the classroom doors.”
The teacher seemed visibly shaken by the incident and I was at a loss of how to help. I could see the confusion and distress on her face. She was not a regular teacher in the building and did not have strong connections to the students and staff. She worked as a special education itinerant and traveled to multiple school sites. I expected that she was simply trying to do her best to provide a positive learning environment for the children she served at that building.
I spent a long time thinking about what happened, and found that I had more questions than answers:
· What are the current national norms for the ages at which children begin to use profanity and derogatory racial and ethnic terms and expressions?
· What are the primary means that children learn racially-based insults?
· Are racially-based insults the new “taboo” words now that profanity has become more commonplace in society and the media?
· Are racially-based insults more or less common between different minority groups, or between dominant majority and minority groups?
· Could behaviors that appear to be defiance actually be rejection of a positive relationship due to one’s own fear of rejection?
· Could positive adult relationships be so rare for some students, that initial rejection is viewed as more beneficial than continued failed attempts?
· Are there recommended ways for staff to respond to racially-based insults from students?
· Are rewards and punishment appropriate methods to address these issues?
· How can we help staff remember that child behaviors are not personal?
If something upsetting has happened to you at school, I am profoundly sorry that you had to experience it. This story was about me. I was the itinerant specialist in the school building. The only way that I have been able to process what happened thus far is from a distance.