An emotionally trying summer

Mary Cipollone ‘02
Waverly Children’s Home

“Good morning, Tyrone, what goals would you like today?”
“Number one and number two.”
“Okay, do you know what those are?”
“Interacting with peers without sexually inappropriate language or behavior and checking in with staff about my feelings when I’m consequenced.”
“Great. Thanks, Tyrone.”

Mornings in the Navigators’ classroom at Waverly Children’s Home always begin with similar exchanges between Renee, the teacher in the classroom, and each of the eight to ten students. The children at Waverly have been recommended by the public school system because they are not succeeding in mainstream classrooms. Most of them have relatively severe emotional and behavioral problems as a result of suffering young childhoods burdened by abuse or neglect.

Tyrone, for example, was placed at Waverly as a result of sexually inappropriate language and behavior. When he was nine years old, Tyrone began spending time with an older man. Although Tyrone never admitted that this man sexually abused him, it was while seeing this man that Tyrone began remarking that he wanted to cut off his genitalia. And it was only after Tyrone began spending time with this man that he began exhibiting sexualized behavior and language, an indicative sign of sexual abuse. Tyrone, an eleven-year-old boy, is now being investigated because of accusations that he has sexually offended his younger cousin. The sad truth is that over ninety percent of first-time sexual offenders become repeat offenders. So regardless of how successful Tyrone’s treatment at Waverly is, Tyrone’s future does not look bright.

Waverly Children’s Home is comprised of both a residential treatment center and the therapeutic day school in which I worked. The philosophy behind Waverly’s therapeutic schooling is to provide a safe, structured environment in which children can receive therapy within the context of the academic classroom. The Navigator’s classroom is organized according to a natural consequences schedule in which a fun period follows every academic period. So after successfully completing schoolwork, a student is rewarded by enjoying break time or physical education.

Each child at Waverly has an individual plan of care with a set of long-term and short-term goals. The children work towards attaining these goals with the ultimate aim of being able to move on to a less restrictive environment. When each child enters the Navigators’ classroom in the morning, they choose two of their short-term goals (which usually number about four in total) to focus on for that day. Short-term goals are behavioral in nature. Raising one’s hand before speaking, maintaining appropriate body space and using appropriate voice tone are examples of short-term goals. After every period of the day, the children are given feedback as to whether they successfully completed their goals for that period. At the end of the day the children receive feedback from staff as to whether they met their goals for the entire day. This is based upon the percentage of activities during which the students successfully completed their goals. The students also have a chance to give their peers positive feedback about their days.

The primary objective of Waverly is to provide a safe environment in which these children can learn and develop. This achievement of this safe classroom, however, is partially reliant on the decisions that the children make throughout the day. To encourage safe behavior, the children are also given feedback as to whether they were “safe” or “unsafe” during the periods of the day. In the Navigators’ classroom behaviors that are considered unsafe include swearing, property destruction, acting up on the bus, or any behavior that necessitates staff physically holding a child. Once a child has acted unsafely during the day, he/she is considered unsafe for the rest of the day. An unsafe student is restricted from joining the next fun period of the day. He/she must also sit at his/her desk for the rest of the day, which means that the child cannot participate in any fun periods that require students to leave their desks.

When I first arrived at Waverly the number of rules there are in the classroom overwhelmed me. Never being exposed to such a structured environment, I at first found it difficult to interact with the children because I was tentative about my understanding of the classroom. I had also been warned that because I was a new staff the children would try to manipulate me and test my limits and classroom awareness. And they certainly did. Since my previous experience with children had been in far less restrictive environments, adapting to the structure was a definite obstacle for me. I watched other staff members as they set clear limits with the children and initially interpreted their interactions with the children as uncaring. But I soon realized that most of the children at Waverly had grown up with little to no structure in their lives. No one had ever explained or modeled acceptable behaviors to these children. So not only did the children need the structure presented to them in order to succeed in mainstream society, they craved it. When a child broke a rule unnoticed he/she often pointed out his/her misbehavior because he/she desired the consistency of consequences for improper actions. And by setting limits and enforcing classroom rules, the staff was not being unkind, but helpful.

Thus I spent my first couple weeks at Waverly learning that the children I was working with were not like any children with which I had previous experience. And as I was adapting to the students, they were also adapting to me. Gradually limits that I set for children were followed rather than laughed at or ignored. The children began to accept and respect me as a member of their classroom staff. This period of adjustment was a difficult and often discouraging stage of my internship. I would find myself unable to make any progress with an acting-out student who was completely unwilling to follow even my simplest direction. And then another staff member would come along and have almost instantaneous success with de-escalating the child. I was beginning to think that I was not competent for the job and I was wasting the time of the children and the other classroom staff by being there. Fortunately, I had the positive encouragement of my colleagues to ensure me that this was not the case. And thankfully I began to make small breakthroughs.

“I’m not doing this stupid reading. I can’t do it.” James defiantly stated as I noticed the revealing pencil banging and arm swinging that arose whenever James was getting anxious or frustrated. Once James became oppositional it often escalated quickly to running out of the classroom or other unsafe behavior that necessitated staff putting their hands on James. And as soon as James left the classroom for more than five minutes, de-escalating his anxiety to the point where he would willingly and safely re-enter the classroom took clever work. I was hoping to help James calm down before he reached that level.

“James, you only have a little bit of reading to do. If you want I will even read it out loud with you and help you with the hard words. And you know that if you –”
“I am not doing it. I hate science. I can’t read this.”
“Well, what I was trying to say before you interrupted me, is that you know if you want to join the class in PE tomorrow you have to get your work done in here during your PE restriction today.”
“I’m not doing it. It’s too hard. I guess I’ll just never go to PE again. I need to go out into the hall and take a self-time out,” James responded as he began banging on his desk and standing up to leave the classroom.
As soon as James mentioned leaving the classroom, I knew that I did not have much time to help him.
“James, you need to ask to leave the classroom otherwise you will get an ‘unsafe’.”
“Can I go out into the hall?”
“Can I talk to you for a minute first?”
“Okay,” James said as he reluctantly sat back down at his desk. I took a deep breath as I began what I knew was my last chance.
“James, I am sitting in here with you offering to help you with the few pages of reading that you need to do. I told you that I will sit down and read all of it with you if you want. You’ve barely even looked at the reading yet, so you can’t know whether or not you can do it.”
“Fine, let’s try.”

I could barely believe the words I was hearing. James, the student who regularly spends entire days in the hallway because he refuses to do his reading homework was willing to attempt to read with me. Success!

As my confidence in the classroom grew, the children’s willingness to cooperate with me also grew. I began to take on more responsibility in the classroom. Standing in front of the students as lead staff for an activity became less daunting and more enjoyable. I found my niche among the team of staff with whom I was working and among the children.

As I got to know the children better, I realized almost every one of them aspired to be well behaved. They wanted to have safe days where they met their goals. But each child entered that classroom carrying a great deal of baggage that was not easy to put down. Learning about the lives of these children was horrifying. One child had been orphaned by her birth parents and adopted into a family that prostituted her before she was eleven years of age. Another girl’s adoptive parents had created a culture of abuse within her household by teaching all the children to abuse one another. She had spent hours locked in closets as a young girl. An eleven-year-old boy’s father was serving time for sexually abusing his younger sister. And we were expecting these children to be able to interact appropriately with their peers and the staff in the classroom? We were expecting them to remember to raise their hands and be able to focus on schoolwork?

Sometimes I wondered if there is any hope for these children after the wrong that has been done to them. I wondered if anything can be done to help them develop and mature into healthy, responsible adults. I worry about the futures of these kids. Because one day they are going to be too old to have Waverly Children’s Home taking care of them. And they are going to be too old to receive a time-out for their misbehaviors. The children at Waverly seem to have such dim futures that at times it seemed hopeless to even try. But that was all the more reason to work harder with the hope that we might be able to shed a little light down at least one of their paths.

Working at Waverly was an incredible learning experience for me. As a Biology major, I had little academic background for working with this population of children. When I walked into the Navigators’ classroom the first day, I really did not know what to expect of either the children or the classroom structure. But with patience and perseverance I was able to learn from the examples of the other staff. By the end of my stay at Waverly I was adept at handling the children and helping them to work through their anxiety and frustration. My time at Waverly also allowed me reflect on how fortunate I am to have such a loving family. The ease of my life was continuously highlighted for me in contrast to the lives of the children around me. I could not even begin to imagine experiencing the problems that these children faced. Working at Waverly solidified my desire to dedicate my lives to improving those of other people in this world. The internship has also given me the confidence that I possess many skills necessary to be a successful teacher.

Waverly Children’s Home provided a wonderful environment for an internship. I received excellent training on Basic Behavior Management, Boundaries, and Non-Violent Crisis Intervention techniques. The staff was well prepared and excited for my arrival. I had the pleasure of working with a very experienced team of staff in the Navigators’ classroom. Linda Girves, my supervisor and a twenty-year veteran of the field, made time every week to discuss how my internship was going. She was always there to ensure that I was having the most fulfilling experience possible during my time at Waverly. Even the staff members that I was not directly working with were supportive and interested in how I was feeling about my time at Waverly.

For me the most difficult part of working at Waverly was having to physically hold children whose behavior had escalated to a point of being unsafe to themselves and/or others. Putting my hands on an agitated child was always unpleasant. It was especially difficult when working with children who had suffered sexual or other physical abuse. Because for those children, having another person put their hands on them is a very unpleasant reminder. Having to restrain a child while listening to him scream at me to get my hands off him or watching him cry never ceased to upset me. Being a very affectionate person I always wanted to stop restraining the child and hug him instead. I wanted to cry with the child and tell her how sorry I was that she had such a difficult life. I wanted to tell her that if I had grown up in her shoes, I would be screaming profanities at anyone who came near me too. But although these were compassionate instincts, they were also unprofessional and following them would clearly not have been productive for the children. So at times I was forced to stifle my compassionate desires. But it was my compassion for the trying lives these children have endured that enabled me to walk back into the classroom everyday knowing what behaviors might confront me.

My internship at Waverly Children’s Home was a challenging and gratifying experience. Working with such a difficult group of children necessitates great strength, and I have vast admiration for the people who have devoted their lives to such a worthy field. The children that I worked with have forever left an imprint on my mind and heart. Their amazing ability to laugh and have fun despite the trying lives they have suffered will constantly be an optimistic reminder to me. If I have had a small fraction of the impact on the children that they have had on me, than I am quite satisfied with what I have accomplished.