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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.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Regina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think more teachers need to be aware of student needs. I enjoyed reading your post and admire your care and understanding when dealing with student problems. All to often teachers forget that we are the ones who see the children more then their own parents at times, and that we, inevitably, are the ones they come to when they have a problem or concern. I agree with you when you said we need to make ourselves more approachable to students. Thanks for your thoughtful insights.

Jennie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am truly touched by what you've posted. I couldn't agree more that we need to be more invested in our students today. So many of them face serious problems that we as children probably never had to deal with. Sadly, it's usually the quiet ones that are screaming on the inside for help. I agree that teaching is not just about academic support, but it's also about emotional support. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Amie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your comments really hit me. I have come across some of those children who I know needed some help. We do our best to hear them and try to help them. I think every teacher wants not only to teach our students the academics they need, but we also want to be able to touch their lives. We have to gain their trust and then they will open up to us. Just letting them know that we are there for them and we will listen is a big step in helping them. I will definitely check out the article that you listed. I am sure it has some helpful things for us.

Lauren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching is not only about teaching the students but also helping them out with certain situations. Even though you are only their "teacher" you are really much more when they come to you with a problem. It really means that they have no one else to go to.

Teara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe teachers are more than just educators, but friends as well. I feel it is important for teachers to develop a trust with their students. I was really interested in your stories and admire your strength and compasion in order to help your students. I have not been teaching that long and have not encountered any child who has had any type of issue. However, I enjoy your stories and stories from others. It allows me to keep an open-mind and be aware of different signs or signals the children may give me. Not only do the stories keep me alert, but they also give me ideas on how to handle certain issues that may come about. Thanks for sharing.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bonnie,

The stories you told were very touching. It is nice to read that great educators, like you, who care this much for children are in this world. I can tell that you dedicate a lot of time to the children in your class. The stories that you told were heart felt and eye catching. I learned that any suspicious questions or behavior are a BIG signal that something may be wrong. From now on when I see any suspicious questions asked by the children in my class, I will be sure to look into it and handle the situation.

Thanks,
Erin

david quah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

She is nine years old and i and my wife is very worry, but i think she seems bright, cheerful and i just couldn't understand her emotional fear or somewhat.

Her mum however did went thru work related stress for the pass 10 years and she quit five months ago, i told her so. I m an editor with Malaysia Progress.

Any solution for my dear princess. I enrol her into Mandarin - Chinese School cos i want her to at leadt know our mother tongue. But me and wife is English educated.

Initially she had some resistance, but after three years she adjusted well and only the communication with outside, seems too quiet. New Mandarin teacher just told us that she better don't go (1st class for additional Mandarin character )

Your practical and prompt solution will be most appreciated.

Best Regards

David Quah

david quah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

She is nine years old and i and my wife is very worry, but i think she seems bright, cheerful and i just couldn't understand her emotional fear or somewhat.

Her mum however did went thru work related stress for the pass 10 years and she quit five months ago, i told her so. I m an editor with Malaysia Progress.

Any solution for my dear princess. I enrol her into Mandarin - Chinese School cos i want her to at leadt know our mother tongue. But me and wife is English educated.

Initially she had some resistance, but after three years she adjusted well and only the communication with outside, seems too quiet. New Mandarin teacher just told us that she better don't go (1st class for additional Mandarin character )

Your practical and prompt solution will be most appreciated.

Best Regards

David Quah

david quah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

She is nine years old and i and my wife is very worry, but i think she seems bright, cheerful and i just couldn't understand her emotional fear or somewhat.

Her mum however did went thru work related stress for the pass 10 years and she quit five months ago, i told her so. I m an editor with Malaysia Progress.

Any solution for my dear princess. I enrol her into Mandarin - Chinese School cos i want her to at leadt know our mother tongue. But me and wife is English educated.

Initially she had some resistance, but after three years she adjusted well and only the communication with outside, seems too quiet. New Mandarin teacher just told us that she better don't go (1st class for additional Mandarin character )

Your practical and prompt solution will be most appreciated.

Best Regards

David Quah

Vivian's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear David,
I understand well your worry. I too have a 5 years old kid which is no socialise at all in the school.
My husband & I are worry of how can he survive for primary school which has 50 students in a year time.
Any one who has experience the same can provide us some idea of how to help the kid?
Any social therapy or play therapy centre in Malaysia to help them to speak in front of outsider?
Thanks.
Vivian

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