My “aha moment” about this came from a specific case early in my career. The most challenging child I ever worked with was a 14 year old in a residential treatment center for youth who were kicked out of the special education system in an urban school. He has been in the center for 5 years and was always assigned to the incoming intern as a sort of test/hazing experience. So, as an intern, I got him.
Ramon (not his real name) was described as “unreachable,” “sullen,” “violent,” and “uncooperative.” He did poorly in the on-grounds schools and there was talk about transferring him to a psychiatric hospital. I tried to use the usual psychological techniques with him, mainly behavioral, but I was not having any success. One day, Ramon left the grounds of the center and headed down toward the highway nearby. Staff said he was depressed and may be trying to kill or hurt himself. I took of down the hill after him and, sure enough, found him poised by the side of the road. I asked Ramon if he was going to go into the highway. He said he thought so but was not positive. I told him, in essence, “It’s hard to say whether it’s a good idea or not. It just might be the smartest thing for you to do. But how about if we take a couple of days to think about it and if you are sure, next time you come down here, I won’t follow you. I may even walk you down! But for now, let’s go back up and see if this is the best idea for your situation.”
After some hesitation, he agreed. We spoke about the terrain on the walk back up and I went with him to his residential cottage to talk. I asked him what he most liked to do, and especially what he was best at. These questions were not typical therapeutic question at the time. When I asked them, Ramon’s face lit up and he started talking to me about music. He played the electric guitar and it turns out that before he was sent to the center, he would miss school because he was playing gigs very late at night. He lied about his age, and was making some good money.
So, why go to school? I pressed him some more and he explained what school felt like to him, how incompetent he felt, how inferior. I asked how he felt at the gigs, and of course, it was a lot different. I was able to arrange for him to borrow guitar and amp from a school staff member, and asked Ramon to play. He was a rock star! I noticed that he didn't use sheet music. I said, “I am curious. I notice you don’t use or seem to have any music. Why not?” Ramon said, “I don’t need it.” I did not challenge him and instead, I said how impressed I was with what he could do.
For a few days, we focused on his music, my asking about, and praising, his techniques. Finally, I asked if we wanted a career in music. Ramon said he was interested. I asked if he has a favorite club he would want to be booked into. Ramon asked what I meant. I explained that a career in music required contracts, ordering materials, transportation, etc. Ramon said he would not worry about any of this. I continued to focus on his strengths and said that with his talent, he could have a career in music. And if he did, there were legal issues that he would have to be concerned with. Ramon said he had friends who would come with him. That was when I realized that Ramon could not read.
As I looked back at his records, I found that he consistently disrupted his diagnostic testing sessions, so no one seemed to know that he was 14 years old and couldn't read. Clearly, he was also failed by an education system that neither noticed and corrected his difficulties or recognized and worked through his strengths.
After several weeks, I began to ask Ramon about the friends he would ask to help him with his music career. Who were these friends and how much can he trust them? Would he be signing papers and legally giving his permission to arrangements he did not know about? It was at this point that Ramon became motivated to learn how to read. He knew that he could never reach his career potential otherwise.
In the remaining year I was at the center, Ramon made remarkable progress in reading, and others channeled other learning through his interest in music. It was the first example of what I have seen over and over again: I see the greatest progress—as well as joy and thriving—when I find and work through children’s strengths in a respectful and an encouraging way. And I suspect you will, also.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.