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Dialogue with Mitch

Brian Patterson. MEd, RTC

(This situation happened a few years ago when I was directing an alternative school for ‘at-risk’ high school students. It is a demonstration of how the concepts of positive relationships between adults and students can work, following the Quality School precepts of Dr. William Glasser.)

Mitch is an eleventh grade student in our first session. His IEP (Individual Education Plan) states that he has ADHD, oppositional disorder and schizophrenic tendencies. His math level is that of a seventh grader and his reading skills are those of a sixth grader. He has been in our learning center for two years and is exhibiting slow progress, both academically and behaviorally.

Two weeks ago, Mitch told me that he was glad he attends our school because there has been no other place where he has been so happy. That is quite rewarding to me but does not signify that the problems are gone. As students begin to identify our center as a comfortable place, deeper behavior issues are revealed with which we can help.

We keep a student log of behaviors, both positive and negative, and contact parents as we think it is necessary. We do not expect or ask parents to fix the problems but do keep them informed of progress and attendance at school. Mitch’s father is supportive of us but is somewhat overbearing with Mitch so we deal directly with Mitch as much as possible.

On Tuesday, Mitch completed three assignments between 7:00 and 9:00. (Our goal is five assignments, depending on their intensity.) Then he began wandering around the room, disturbing other students. He came to my desk and claimed to be starving and wanted to walk to the Dollar Store for something to eat. I reiterated to him that the enrollment agreement stated that a student cannot leave and return the same day. He cursed a little, under his breath, and walked back to his seat. A few minutes later, he was talking to another teacher, asking her for permission to go get something to eat. Her response was the same as mine so he went back to his seat to pout for a while.

Mitch began talking to another student, distracting her from her work. He also tossed a paper wad at the trash can across the room. When he looked toward me and saw that I was watching he got up and retrieved the paper. I motioned to him to come to my desk, which he did, and I asked if he had completed his Reading Plus assignment. His answer was negative and he proceeded to do the assignment. The rest of the session was without incident.

On Wednesday, Mitch worked with our teacher who focuses on preparing students for the state standardized math test and was not a disruption. He did, however, get reminded about his language when playfully arguing with his best friend in class.

Thursday, Mitch came in and was very sleepy. He said he had been playing video games until 3:00 AM. I told him that he could rest for fifteen minutes if he would devote the rest of the session to his Reading Plus assignment and four other items on his program. He agreed and did well until 10 o’clock. At that time he began to argue with another student about a girl they need and was sent to talk to me. We reviewed our Reality Therapy questioning and he revealed that he had not completed all of his assignments. He had avoided the Reading Plus. I asked him if that was helping accomplish his goals, to which he answered negatively. I then asked him what plan he could develop to do better.

On Friday, Mitch was off-task nearly all of the session. He asked for food and was once again pouting because he could not go get something. Eventually, we came up with a granola bar that satisfied him for a while. After completing one assignment, he had an IPod on his desk. Our enrollment agreement states that there are no electronic devices allowed. He turned it over to a teacher with a great deal of grumbling and remained off-task. About twenty minutes later, he asked the teacher where the Ipod was because he was going to go home. She was busy with another student but returned to her desk to get the device for Mitch, hoping this would settle him down. The IPod was not in the desk where she thought she had put it. Mitch began cursing and disrupted the whole class, demanding that we search everyone. Another teacher tried to settle him down and was unsuccessful. I intervened and got him to calm down and talk a little. I asked him why he had brought the device to school, knowing it was not permitted and why it was out so the teacher saw it. At that moment, the teacher remembered that she had locked it up in a storage cabinet.

I had to leave for a meeting then but the teachers reported that he had continued to be difficult and was taken to the back room until the other students were dismissed. Mitch’s father was called; he was put on administrative review and cannot return to school until he, his father and I have a meeting to discuss whether or not he can continue in the program.

My Goal and Plan

My goal is to keep Mitch as a student in our learning center and to help him be successful. Graduation is a year and a half away so there are some issues we must address if he is to complete his coursework. My plan is to continue using Reality Therapy to help him take control and positive responsibility for his life and actions.

Action and Results

On Monday and Tuesday of the following week, I was required to be in meetings for our charter renewal and with the contractor for our new learning center. Mrs. Jagger, our lead teacher had the re-intake meeting with Mitch and his father. She reviewed the expectations of the enrollment agreement, emphasizing that students agree to leave all electronic devices at home or keep them safely in coat pockets. Otherwise, Mitch could leave it with the teacher when he arrives and watch her lock it up. That way he would know where it was and would not disrupt the class. This was agreeable to Mitch and his father.

On Wednesday, when I arrived, I called Mitch to my desk and had him review with me what he and Mrs. Jagger had worked out. He said the plan was fair and that he would get at least five assignments finished and signed off during the session. At 9:00 AM, halfway through the morning session, there was an outburst from Mitch, disrupting the classroom, which had been very quiet. I heard Ms. Sova talking to Mitch and then he headed toward my desk. I asked him to come to the back room where we have some privacy and had an extensive conversation with him.

This is a dialogue between Mitch and me after an incident in class on Wednesday:

Mr. Patterson: Mitch, it seems that there is a problem. Do you think we can work it out?

Mitch: Nobody ever listens to me!

Mr. Patterson: I’ll listen. Tell me what you were doing.

Mitch: Justin and Regan were teasing me about my hair being messed up, and they made me mad. Ms. Sova sent me to see you. It wasn’t my fault!

Mr. Patterson: Justin and Regan were making fun of your hair and you’re mad at them. What did you do while they were teasing you?

Mitch: I yelled at them. Ms. Sova asked me if I was choosing to move somewhere else when I started yelling. She heard the F word. They wouldn’t stop laughing when she yelled at me, so I kept on yelling. She wouldn’t listen to me. She said I was being disruptive. It’s not my fault.

Mr. Patterson: Do you have the right to be happy and to be treated with compassion in the classroom?

Mitch: Yes.

Mr. Patterson: What is the responsibility that goes with that right?

Mitch: Not to tease or hurt anyone’s feelings.

Mr. Patterson: Do you have the right to hear and be heard?

Mitch: Yes.

Mr. Patterson: What’s the responsibility that goes with the right to be heard?

Mitch: Not to yell or scream or disturb others.

Mr. Patterson: What were you doing?

Mitch: Yelling and cussing.

Mr. Patterson: You want Justin and Regan to stop teasing you. Was it the teasing that got you into trouble, or was it what you chose to do in response?

Mitch: They made me mad.

Mr. Patterson: Did yelling and cussing get them to stop?

Mitch: No, they laughed and kept teasing me.

Mr. Patterson: What do you really want?

Mitch: I want to be in class and not be teased about my hair.

Mr. Patterson: Is yelling and cussing going to keep you in class with your friends?

Mitch: No.

Mr. Patterson: What will help you stay in class?

Mitch: I don’t know!

Mr. Patterson: Will yelling help you stay in class?

Mitch: No.

Mr. Patterson: What might help?

Mitch: Not yelling?

Mr. Patterson: Do you want to be friends with Justin and Regan?

Mitch: Yes, if they stop teasing me.

Mr. Patterson: If you walked away and talked to one of the teachers, or me, there are some different things we could do to help you solve the problem. Remember our motto, “Those involved in the problem can solve the problem.”

Mitch: Like what?

Mr. Patterson: We could call a class meeting and discuss the right to be happy and treated compassionately in the classroom and to treat others with compassion. The three of you could get into a Solving Circle to work out your problem without disrupting others. Does either one of those options sound reasonable?

Mitch: I guess.

Mr. Patterson: There is something else you could do instead of yelling.

Mitch: I couldn’t think of anything.

Mr. Patterson: You could say, “I want you to stop teasing. It hurts my feelings.” Or, you could request a class meeting.

Mitch: What if that didn’t work? I think they’d laugh at me if I said that!

Mr. Patterson: Has not telling them how you feel stopped the teasing?

Mitch: No.

Mr. Patterson: So what do you want your plan to be?

Mitch: I won’t yell and I’ll ask Ms. Sova for a class meeting.

Mr. Patterson: Will that be difficult?

Mitch: Yes, but I need them to stop, so I’ll tell her.

Mr. Patterson: When will you talk to her?

Mitch: At the end of the session.

Mr. Patterson: Do you think this will work?

Mitch: Yes, I won’t yell and disrupt the class. I will ask for help.

On Thursday, Mitch was already in the classroom when I arrived. He had come in an hour early to get a head start on his work. He stated that his program was due and he wanted to finish it during that session. He completed eight assignments in the four hour session and did not get up except for a drink and to ask questions of the teachers. There were no infractions of any kind and he seemed very content. Just before the end of the session, he came to my desk and asked for a word search. We keep several on hand for activities at the end of sessions. They seem to help students rest their brains for a while. These are not required but are very popular with our students.

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