Yesterday I was walking through one of our school buildings. Coming toward me was one of our middle school children. He is about as cute a kid as you can imagine. Lots of curly hair. Bright smile. Loves his stocking caps.
He wasn’t smiling right then, though. He was half loping, half striding, and kicking and cursing at every closed door. A teacher and a Residential Treatment Specialist were both with him, but they were hanging about 10 feet behind as he made it down the hall. When we crossed paths, I said, “Good Morning." He responded, "Hi," mid-kick and then completed the kick and curse.
When I got adjacent to the teacher, I asked him, “What’s up?” The teacher said, “He’s coping. We have a plan and we’re working on a new plan.” Then he smiled.
Probably not something you’d see in many schools.
Let me be clear. The child was not hurting himself, anyone else, or the doors. He was not doing any property or personal damage. He was not cursing at anyone or demeaning anyone.
As the teacher said, he was “coping.”
Kicking and cursing will not be socially appropriate in the long run. But, in this case, it may be incredible progress.
The kids who come to Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch have all been through their own unique traumas, and have learned how to cope and protect themselves in their own way. Some try to pull into themselves and “disappear” so they won’t be noticed or hurt as often. Some self-harm, trying to combat the pain they feel by experiencing pain they themselves control. Some become very aggressive, striking out at others and attacking whenever they are angry, threatened, frustrated, or disappointed.
In treatment, we work on a myriad of things concurrently to address different aspects of a child’s pain and behavior. One of the first steps is to identify unhealthy coping behaviors for what they are and why they developed. Then, understanding the types of forces that “trigger” those responses helps the child to prepare for the urge to cope in their familiar way. Once that happens, they can learn substitute behaviors … slowly and of increasingly acceptable types, until a trigger brings on a response that is healthy for the child and the people around them.
I don’t know this child’s particular story. I do know he has a history of striking out and hurting others. On this day, he was kicking, but doing no harm. Perhaps the next step will be for him to run laps when he feels a trigger, then listen to music, then chew gum. I don’t know his trajectory, but what I saw was a child “coping” in a new and healthier way, for him. And, there was a plan.
Please keep our kids and staff in your prayers.
In His love,
Joy Ryan, President/CEO
Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch
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