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Blog Aug 24, 2016

Building Trust

New York City Instructional Coach Sharon Chapman reflects on what it took to help one second grader feel safe and supported in school…and the difference that made.

At one of my schools, there is a little girl named Cindy. Cindy comes from a very difficult family. There are a lot of problems at home between mom and dad – it’s an abusive environment. Cindy is academically delayed, and her mother has not been able or willing to recognize her daughter’s need for support.

Last year, Cindy was having problems with two boys in her second grade art class. They would taunt and bullying her, causing her to leave the classroom screaming.

Cindy’s art teacher approached me for help. We decided to design and implement a behavior plan for the girl – really a plan for dealing with the two bullying boys and any other confrontations more productively. In developing the plan, we agreed that it was important to be very clear with Cindy about how she should respond when she felt threatened. We knew that telling her what to do wouldn’t be enough. We needed to show her what it would look like, then to practice it with her. We had to provide her with a prompt that would help her recognize when she was in one of those difficult moments.

When we brought Cindy in to talk, it was evident how grateful she was that someone had even noticed that she was struggling. Cindy sat very quietly listening to us with a look of wonder on her face. “You can help me?”

We explained that the first thing we were going to do was move her seat, to minimize the direct contact with the two boys. We then showed her how to stay focused and ignore their taunts. “Keep your attention on what you’re doing,” we told her, “and repeat to yourself: ‘Don’t pay attention. Work on my art.’” Finally, we agreed that every time Cindy lined up for art class, the teacher would give her a prompt touching her thumb to her nose – to indicate she was in on the plan and to remind Cindy of their strategy.

It was the prompt that excited Cindy the most! It was like having a secret handshake with her teacher. Cindy seemed to bask in the attention; she felt cared for and supported. She also seemed to appreciate the strategy for changing her own behavior. As a result, she was able to stay focused and engaged in the lesson. The boys stopped bothering her because she no longer gave them the outsized reaction they sought. And most importantly, Cindy no longer has anxiety about being in class.

Some weeks later, Cindy’s father accompanied her to school. Before he left, she turned to him and said, “Oh, Dad, listen to this. If someone is ever trying to bully you, just say to yourself ‘ignore them and keep doing what you’re doing.’” Cindy has struggled in other classes, too, but this behavioral plan is portable. She now knows that she has adults that she can trust and a strategy that works even in difficult social situations. These are skills she can build on.

*Note: The student’s name has been changed to Cindy to protect her privacy.