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Case Narrative

“Another way that Erik lacks a sense of boundaries is his habit of blurting out whatever is on his mind. By spring in first grade, almost all kids have learned the ‘raise your hand method’ of getting air time. The thing is, it drives me crazy because I'll be reading a story and Erik will yell out these fantastic questions and comments. I'll say, ‘Erik, I wish you wouldn't interrupt, but that's a really good question.’ So he's getting all of these mixed messages from me,” commented Charlene Staple, Erik's first grade teacher.

The Circumstance
Erik Greer is a six-and-a-half-year-old student at Hawthorne School. Located in a rural town, Hawthorne is a small, public elementary school with a population of nearly 400 students. According to Dana Greer, Erik's mother, Erik has been experiencing difficulties in school since kindergarten last year. At that time his teacher recommended that Erik work with a therapist because she felt that Erik was unhappy and was rough and hurtful toward other children. Ellen Triest, a play therapist, has been working with Erik for the past fourteen months. This year, Charlene and Dana have been involved in ongoing communication about Erik's behavior and experiences in the first grade classroom.

Erik Greer Describes Himself
Erik is a cheerful looking child with a soft face and bowl haircut. He is somewhat tall for his age and is slightly plump. He has an eccentric side. At home he sometimes enjoys dressing in a long multi-colored skirt, a red cape, and a half-slip around his head that cascades over his shoulders like long, blond hair.

“School's good some of the time, when you have choice time and recess and lunch and snack. I don't like school when the teacher sends you to time-out. I get sent to time-out for lots of things. You do noise when the teacher's trying to taaaallllkkkk, or giggling when there's something that's not funny, or when you're not using the things at choice time right. If I was the teacher, and a kid was doing those things, I'd say, ‘Please don't do that.’ And if he did it again and again and again, I'd say, ‘PLEASE DON'T DO THAT,’ and if he did it again, I'd send him to time-out.”

“I like my teacher but not when she sends you to time-out or when she yells at you, ‘Beeeee QUIET!’ I want her to say, ‘PLEASE be quiet!’ Some of the time my teacher likes me and some of the time she doesn't like me. She doesn't like me when I don't do the things that she says to do. And sometimes she can be a little mean and sometimes she's sort of mean, and when she's very mean, I don't like it.”

“Kindergarten was nice. Better than first grade cuz the teacher didn't yell at you for that much. She'd say, ‘Could you please not do that?’ If I did it again she'd say, ‘Please don't do that cuz it's destructive.’ She'd just say that and then I would stop. I get saddest at school when your teacher sends you to time-out and yells at you. And when kids don't be nice to you. Some of the time the kids like me and some of the time they get mad at me. Everybody does sometimes. I get angry when kids tease you and you're not nice to them and they hit you. If they keep doing it and doing it and doing it, I do it. Some of the time the kids would say I'm nice and some of the time they say I wasn't. I want to be a girl some of the time. And sometimes I want to be a boy. Girls get more friends. They get to go places a lot cuz, my dad said, girls don't fight as much and they don't be mean as much and they hardly ever hit people and be mean. I don't want my teacher to know that I want to be a girl.”

Charlene Staple, Erik's Teacher, Describes Him
Charlene Staple is in her early forties. She wears her brown and graying hair cut short and dresses casually. Charlene has a warm and friendly smile and engaging eyes. She holds a degree in early childhood education and has been teaching for nearly 20 years. Charlene has been at Hawthorne School for eight years, where she has taught kindergarten and pre-first. This is her third year teaching a first grade class. Her philosophy about teaching is to allow kids to move about, actively engaged in their own learning. Charlene wants and encourages independence.

“Academically, Erik's got all of this built-in intelligence and awareness and perception. He's near the bottom of the heap, though, in terms of his skills and being able to write independently. The worst part for Erik about writing is that someone won't be able to read it and that will be an insult to him, like saying, ‘Erik, you failed.’”

“He has received extra help for reading—a half-hour every day of one-on-one time. It's helping a lot. Because Erik has such a wonderful memory and imagination, he would rather rely on those to put a story together. Focusing word by word—that kind of control—that's real hard for him. It gets into a battle between Erik and whatever adult is trying to help him implement control.”

“When I sit down with Erik to read, he'll start out telling me this elaborate story based on the pictures and his memory of the story. I'll let him finish and I'll say, ‘Now will you read it, and read it using the words and your finger pointing at the words?’ And, he'll start to do as I asked, just because I asked him to do it, but then he immediately sets up a testing situation. And he'll be looking at me out of the corner of his eye.”

“A lot of times I'll just close the book and say, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to do it the way I asked you to do it or do you want to just sit here, and I'll go and work with somebody else, and it will be a longer time before you go and do whatever's next?’ Then he'll do it if I put that pressure on him. You always have to set limits.”

“I think I've been consistent with Erik. He isn't the first child like this that I've known in my life—he's not that unique. Some of the places where we run into trouble is just a real lack of respect for people's physical and emotional boundaries. Erik will find a tender spot in somebody's emotional makeup and he'll just keep, keep, keep at it until someone is in tears or until I intervene and ask him to stop. Earlier in the fall, his aggression was not just verbal—he was hurting people. Erik's awareness of body in relation to things and other people is really poor. He's a kid who, sitting in a group, is always spilling out into other people's space.”

“I see him as extremely immature, emotionally. His perception of right and wrong and fair and unfair is absolutely black and white, which is an aspect of his immaturity. He cannot see exceptions to the rules; he cannot see the other person's point of view at all. Erik is very self-centered and has a very weak sense of self esteem. I feel that what he's trying to do when he needles away at people is to build himself up. And to me, that's the strongest theme about Erik, and the piece of Erik that gets him into trouble and causes a lot of trouble and stress and tension in the classroom.”

“He does have friends and that's his saving grace. Erik has friends because he is a very intriguing kid. He's a bright kid who has great ideas. He's very intuitive. He has a very sophisticated understanding of people and what makes people tick and how they're going to respond. I think, basically, Erik likes being here. I think he trusts me, and I think he likes me. Erik always connects with me in some way. I wore a skirt for the first time this year and Erik was the first one to notice. He gave me a compliment. And he's inclined to do those kinds of socially acceptable things.”

Dana Greer Describes Her Son
Dana Greer is in her mid-thirties. She is an articulate and attractive woman with full, curly black hair and clothes reminiscent of adolescence. Dana has worked at Hawthorne School for the last four years as a paraprofessional in a special needs classroom. She and her husband, Kevin, have been married 17 years. They have two other children: Justin, who is 13, and Tamara, who is nearly 17.

“Erik, in his own way, has been very demanding on our family, because really, since he came into our family, he's wanted every speck of attention. He's really wanted to be an only child. And in some ways, he is, because the other kids are so much bigger than him; Justin was six and Tamara was nine when Erik was born.”

“Erik came at a time when all of us were set in our little foursome. Everybody had their own life in some ways and Erik, being the littlest, I think really felt that he was just kind of dragged along. If we were doing something, we were bringing Erik. It wasn't necessarily something that Erik would want to do. I think he really felt that anytime we did something, we felt obligated to have him join us—or, that he felt that he had to join us when we did things as a family even though he didn't necessarily want to at times.”

“Erik is very creative; he's really flamboyant, really different. He's also a real pain in the neck a lot of times [laughing], quite frankly. He gets so much attention because he can be so rude or obnoxious or difficult that everybody gets sick of it, myself included at times. Each of us at different times has gotten fed up with him. And, hopefully, one of us have not had it with him [laughing]—that is, we don't all get fed up with him at the same time—so he has someone to rally for him.”

“There's only a couple of kids on our street and they don't really play with him very much. I don't think they really like him. I think they think he's strange because he wears dresses and stuff sometimes, outside. He dressed up like a girl more often when he was younger. Now I kind of have him do that in the house or on the backyard. But he alienates other kids by not wanting to share his things or by being too rough. I don't think that they have so much fun playing with him. But he really, really wants to have them as friends, so it's an awkward situation.”

“Erik's not a placid little kid who does whatever he is told, who is easy going and doesn't question or just kind of goes with the flow. He questions everything. He questions your authority. He also has a lot of energy, so in a classroom situation with a lot of other kids, it's easy for him to get into giggling or not paying attention or getting in a riff with another kid.”

Charlene Describes Her Communications with Dana
“At some point early in the fall, Dana and I got together and talked. The system we have at Hawthorne School is a fall parent conference, a winter report card, a spring parent conference, and an end of the year report card. I think we've had two meetings, a parent conference, and an interim meeting, checking to see how things were going. In addition to those meetings, I have short conversations with Dana, when I see her in the hall here at school or when she comes to pick Erik up.”

“Sometimes I try to make a point that Erik's reading and writing are coming along, or I make some positive kinds of comments so it's not all so negative. And sometimes it's, ‘Erik had a real hard time with so and so today so you might want to talk about it at home.’”

“I often have Erik write about some of the things that happen at school. I send his work home, and I write on them if his writing isn't clear or isn't complete enough. I'll add a little note to his mother that says ‘Please discuss this and sign it and return it to me so I know that you talked about it at home.’”

“I think Dana has a fairly accurate understanding of the fact that Erik is difficult. I don't think that's a surprise to her. Dana's very bright, so I don't have to mince my words at all. We can talk about Erik at a fairly sophisticated level of understanding. I think at some point I made the decision to be as honest as I could about Erik and not to say to myself, ‘Well, Dana's really worried and anxious about this child, so I'll make it sound better than it really is.’ I have done that in the past with parents, but it never pays off, and just isn't a good idea. I felt comfortable with Dana; she's been in the school for several years, so I've known her as a colleague. I decided some time ago that I'm just going to be up front with her and be clear about what Erik's behavior is like at school and describe things that go on.”

“I think Dana worries about Erik a lot and, in particular, she worries that he's a problem. I do what I can without offering false promises to allay Dana's fears and anxiety. I might try to put his behavior in perspective to show that it's not that unusual. Yes, it has Erik's particular stamp on it—it takes a form that is unique to Erik—but the underlying motivation behind his behavior is fairly common with young kids. A lot of kids grow out of it, and it's probably not going to ruin his life.”

“Dana is making some effort to help Erik by taking an interest in him and getting him counseling. At some point in the year, she wrote me a note saying that maybe once a week she could come in and spend an half hour with Erik during her lunch break. So that was great. I was able to say, ‘Yeah, that's a great idea.’ I think it's wonderful for Erik to have a dose of that one day a week. I don't think it has a drastic effect on his behavior, but it's still important.”

“I spent a lot of the time in the first parent conference in the fall describing what a hard time Erik had socially. I also mentioned his hurting kids, both physically and emotionally, especially his taunting and hurtful teasing. Dana was very concerned and maybe a little bit surprised. I think she wanted to get things fixed up more quickly than they could be. She was surprised that the play therapy wasn't helping more. Her response was to wonder why—‘where is that coming from?’ And I just don't know the answer. That's when you need the counselor here because that's going past my skills.”

Dana Describes Her Communications With Charlene
“Charlene came to the house in the summer before first grade to meet Erik and to meet us. She saw our family and took a picture of Erik out on the deck. That was really nice for Erik and for me. It was nice for Charlene. I also got to tell her a lot about Erik and what concerns I had about him.”

“I expressed that Erik had lots of problems and that I thought he was a really, really bright child with a lot of creativity and that I would want that brought out. I wanted Charlene to be aware of his behaviors. I also wanted to point out his assets so she would really be tuned into thinking, ‘Okay, he has these things that are difficult about him, but he also has these wonderful things about him.’”

“Before the parent conference in the fall, Erik brought home two notes from Charlene describing time-outs Erik had had in the classroom: ‘Erik was distracting the other kids’ or ‘Erik was tickling so and so.’ I would talk to Erik or have Kevin, his dad, talk to him.”

“Kevin and I went to the parent conference in early November. Charlene told us that Erik often hurts kids and says mean things to them. Like this one little boy, apparently he has big ears, and Erik would call him ‘alien ears.’ To hear that my kid would be so cruel felt really bad. I just felt like, ‘Why is he doing that? Why would he do that when he gets so much love? Why would he be so mean?’”

“So I guess at first I felt upset and disappointed by what Charlene was telling us. I didn't feel close enough to say that out loud to her, but I think she could probably tell. I probably said, ‘I'm sad. I don't understand why Erik felt the need to be mean.’ I hoped Charlene knew it was self-esteem issues for Erik.”

“Charlene's response was pretty cool and detached. I felt she was good about saying that Erik loves stories and that he asks insightful questions, but mostly she was reporting on Erik's problem behaviors, making us aware of them. I felt sad that Charlene hadn't said that Erik was terrific. I also wanted her to really like him. I wanted her to see his spirit and his spark.”

“After the conference, Charlene and I started putting notes in each other's boxes at school about Erik. Sometimes Charlene would say, ‘I see some improvement,’ but it was never what I wanted to hear. In a casual note sometime in early December, I asked Charlene to let me know how things were going. I went in before school started the next morning and Charlene said, ‘Well, Erik has been doing better, we've seen some progress, but the last couple of weeks he's gone back to teasing other kids.’”

“I was realizing these were just some major, major difficult times for me in my life. Probably one of the most difficult times of my life came this year in November. I think Erik could feel the effects of that. He would see me crying a lot and he would see me getting angry a lot. So, I think even if he was making progress, things like that could be setbacks for him.”

“I met with Ellen Triest, Erik's play therapist, to check on Erik's progress. After that meeting, I left Charlene a note telling her there was a lot going on in my life. I didn't tell her the gory details, but I thought it was really important that she know. I hoped that my telling her would help her to be understanding and compassionate toward Erik rather than just see him as a troublemaker or a screw up.”

“But my telling Charlene didn't seem to change how she viewed me or Erik. She was open to working with me, but I felt like she was getting tired of constantly having to talk to Erik—I felt like she was weary but still trying to help.”

“Soon afterwards, I started going into Erik's classroom to read to him on Mondays. I wanted to spend time with him and also to know more of what was going on in the classroom. I would see Erik's immature behavior, and how he would talk to other kids in ways I wish he wouldn't.”

“I also made the decision not to go back to school second semester. I had been trying to get my B.A., but I think it just really put more pressure on the whole household. Not being in school has helped a lot because I have just made more time to be with Erik.”

“I guess sometimes I would want Charlene to nurture Erik more, take him under her wing more—maybe in some ways, really letting him know how great he is. I think I can tell him I love him 150 times a day, but it's nice for him to get that from people outside of the family.”

“I think part of Charlene's nature is that she's a little distant, at least that's what I sense from her. Sometimes I feel like I'd like to know her more and have a more casual and free flowing relationship. I really like and respect her, but I think she keeps a distance.”

The people and events in this case are based on a real life situation, but the names of all persons and places have been disguised to protect confidentiality.



Discussion Questions

  • From your own experience as a teacher, how unusual is Erik's behavior? From your own experience as a parent, how unusual is Erik's behavior?
  • What are the assumptions being made by Charlene and Dana? Are they being communicated? How?
  • How effectively are Erik, Charlene, and Dana communicating with one another?
  • What are the pros and cons of Charlene's decision to speak frankly with Dana?
  • What are the power differences and struggles involved in this case?
  • Do Charlene and Dana recognize their shared interests and responsibilities for engaging, guiding and motivating Erik to be socially and academically successful? What could they do differently?
  • If you were teaching a student similar to Erik, how would you interact with him? What could you do to avoid power struggles? To build self-esteem? How would you build a relationship with a similar student?
  • How could you assist a parent in learning how to help her child develop academic and relational skills?

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project