He is NOT his Label

I had one very memorable experience in St. Louis while instructing kids at Camp Weloki. There was one child (I’ll call him T to protect confidentially) who was a particular challenge from the second he landed his feet on the camp grounds. His energy was anxious and what most people would refer to as obnoxious. His pattern of connection consisted of telling lude, crude jokes, interrupting constantly, and making incessant noises while in constant motion. Not only did he refuse to play games but seemly was most interested in sabotaging any activity that was planned by the staff. It took him no time at all to create a ton of distance with both staff and peers. The negative energy started spreading to all of the other campers that had at some time in their life made that same attempt at connecting in their social environment. The first night we had 8 of the 20 kids feeding off each other in this obnoxious, energetic state. I thought to myself, “I’m not getting paid enough for this %*^#@! And remind me again of why i do this work!” I wanted to quit right then and there. But I had to breathe and begin to shift how I was seeing “T”. I initially just wanted to kick him out. I would not have had anyone disagree as he appeared more of a challenge than any of us were willing to tolerate. When I initially brought attention to his behavior, his response was “I act this was because I am ADHD! There is nothing you or anyone can do about it. I just need my meds, that’s all!” I had empathy for every teacher and adult who had ever had T in their care. I did not want to know how many times T has been sent to the principal’s office, sent to his room or excluded from peers in play. But, I am sure it was more than most could or would want to survive.

Regardless, I was not willing to accept his reason and realized that his behavior was a call for help and that the behavior he was using to connect was the only pattern he knew. All the support staff and counselors in the entire camp were frustrated and looking at me with empathy and hope since I was in charge. As the counselors in our group met the following morning I realized our challenge but I was determined not to send T home. It was also going to be a challenge as each morning our schedule was to meet with the kids for 3.5 hours to help them in their relationships, and I was not sure T was going to last for more than 5 minutes, much less hours. I did however believe that underneath all the negative behavior was a very bright, sensitive, loving child screaming to feel a sense of belonging.

To make a long story short, we decided to tighten up the structure for T and make a positive connection at the same time. Structure meant we had to be clear and consistent with our expectations. Connection meant we HAD to keep the judgment of his behavior out of our interactions with him. This meant we had to see the best in him, notice his behavior and let him know we believed that his negative behaviors were not who we thought he was. With this approach, I kid you not, in 3 days he was not only totally respectful and connecting in ways that created closeness with everyone, but he was leading the entire group in conflict resolution. I have never, in my professional experience seen such a dramatic shift in such a short time. No one would have believed it could have happened and yet he trusted us and believed enough in himself to make the shift. At one point he told me that the only people he lets touch him is his little brother, and that he didn’t believe in hugging. By day 5 he had made a daily commitment to hug 20 people in camp. It was a true transformation and I believe that my journey in Conscious Discipline helped me to open a space of unconditional love that T trusted to really be who he wanted to be, NOT the bad, obnoxious, brat that he believed he was when he came to camp. I only hope that T is able to take some of what he learned as he enters into the school arena, where he had struggled so much. I wish him well daily and am grateful for the learning he gave us all. He taught everyone in camp so much about our judgments and how they get in the way of success especially with the label of ADHD. I know this experience will continue to serve me in helping others just like him……. Thank you T!