George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Question-Mark Children: Sometimes the Quiet Ones Are the Ones Who Speak the Loudest

May 20, 2007

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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