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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Question-Mark Children: Sometimes the Quiet Ones Are the Ones Who Speak the Loudest

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

Have there been question-mark children in your teaching life? Certain children have puzzled me. Sometimes they wouldn't talk; sometimes they would ask questions that were difficult to answer. As I became more experienced as a listener, I realized that these questions were circling around things that were bothering the child, and that they were looking for answers from me. Their questions were an attempt to reach someone who could help.

One girl, who was being molested, asked indirect questions of the school counselor, who didn't pick up on the underlying needs. She asked me, and though I paid attention, I was slow in answering her questions, because I didn't know what she was driving at. Finally, the other girls in the class pointed out the problem to me on a field trip: She was pregnant.

They wanted a solution. I hadn't realized that her hypothetical question was about herself. When I did figure it out, I had to find actionable ways to treat the problem. I can't tell you more about this specific case, except that it was a very difficult problem, but we solved it. You can bet my antenna was up thereafter.

One little boy did not speak at all. After a lot of time and one-sided conversation, he began talking to me. His father was in prison, and I don't know all the details, but kids were picking on him on the way to school, so his grandmother began sending him to school by cab. That didn't help, but personal protection and karate lessons, which helped build his self-esteem, did.

I spent time with this student, and we cultivated the things he loved, one of which was math. I saw him last after he graduated from high school with a college scholarship and came by to say thank you. There are rewards for time you spend with students you never see coming.

But I have not always been successful in helping every student. One boy told me about the smoking that occurred in his home, and of his fear of dying in a fire caused by a cigarette. I tentatively probed this situation with the adults in his life and with school administration, but I was rebuffed and yelled at. Two years later, I saw the child's face flash on my television screen: He had died of a fire in his home. Then, only then, did the boy's parents talk to me, but it was too late. I still think of him from time to time.

I have a friend who is a counselor who worked in my school. We created ways to allow children to talk with us, to leave the classroom if there was a problem, to share deep concerns. I rarely worked alone to solve these problems. For minority kids and students of different cultures, there are also simple ways to start the communication and ways of solving problems. Teaching is not just about motivating learning or filling up students' heads with knowledge. Emotional intelligence is as important as book learning.

The article "Ten Tips for Creating a Caring School" is a good beginning to help teachers and school administrators think about caring about students.

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Erin from South Dakota's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I admire your devotion that you gave to the students. Sometimes no matter how much we want to protect someone, it is not always possible. I am a future educatorand I intend to read the article you suggested to help me in my classroom. Good luck and thanks for the words of wisdom.

Christine Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your comments really hit home for me as I am in graduate school and one of the chapters I was just reading in our textbook is about being a "helper". I admire that you focused on these children and listened and used techniques to uncover their issues and then tried to help them solve their problems. Being able to build that personal relationship with the children you teach is so key to their learning and trusting in you. We are spending so much time with the children and it is important for us to be able to listen and discover when something is bothering them.

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for identifying "question-mark" children. I have encountered them throughout my teaching career. I have helped a few. A couple slipped through my fingers. I pray subsequent teachers were able to reach the students whose problems I could not solve. Teachers need to be in-tune with their students. How can we expect students to learn if their emotional needs are not being met?

Ellen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your insight on "question-mark" children. Your experiences prove that teachers are not just teaching to achieve test scores and yearly progress. We are teaching the whole child and need to be considerate advocates for all of our students. However, we can't put all of the weight only on our shoulders. I grieve for the powerlessness you must have felt after your former student's accident and hope that you realize what a difference you've made in all of your students' lives.

Sandy Wilbanks's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so glad that I read your posting. I want so desperately to make a difference in the lives of my students, not just academically, but socially and emotionally. I often worry that I don't pick up on the little signs like you mentioned. I work at a title one school, where many of my students come from less than desirable homes. Needless to say, there are many issues that arise that need to be addressed. I will definitely read the article you suggested to help me identify the signs so that I can be more intune to my students. I definitely believe that in order to fully reach students, that a teacher must be able to connect with them on all levels. I completely agree that emotional intelligence is as important as academic intelligence. Thank you for your insight.

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