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This article is in response to the November 13, 2014 handcuffing of an eight-year-old boy by a police officer responding to a school call to manage an aggressive explosion. The incident was shown on Fox News on August 4, 2015, and widely reported in news media around August 6, 2015.
Like many other educators, I watched with concern the recent news and video of an upset eight-year-old boy restrained with handcuffs in the corner of a room while a police officer repeatedly told him he would be released if he behaved as he should. Many people commented on the incident. Some were critical of the police officer and the school administration for treating a young boy with ADHD like a criminal. Others criticized the critics, pointing out that explosive children may kick, bite, push over desks, throw books, and endanger both themselves and others. One parent wondered, “Wouldn’t you want school personnel to call the police if your child and his school were in danger from this child?”
I felt mostly sad as I read the news, watched the video, and studied the comments. Those who were dealing with the situation were probably good educators and law enforcement officers, but they obviously had little experience with young children susceptible to major blow-ups. To think of a comparable example, most of us know that if we seek medical treatment for a special problem, we need a physician or hospital that deals with our condition on a frequent — preferably daily — basis. Similarly, a frequently-exploding child needs educators who are so experienced with such behavior that they can comfortably teach and enjoy such children in spite of their periodic meltdowns.
I didn’t see gross mistreatment of the child in the video, although I don’t like the idea of handcuffs. What I did see was lots of subtle mistakes that suggested lack of experience and understanding of upset young children. The boy should not have been facing a corner of the room, for instance, where he was unable to see that nothing dangerous was approaching him from behind; and he should not have been isolated from people he knew while exposed to a stranger in a police uniform.
We don’t know what kind of anger or defiance may have originally caused the boy’s explosion, but by the time the video begins, the boy is obviously scared and panicking. A teacher experienced with child meltdowns would have known that the child’s first need was to feel safe and protected, despite his behavior. Before everything else, this boy is, we must remember, an eight-year-old child with all of a young child’s needs and insecurities, not a seasoned adult in a small body.
I first learned to handle difficult people long ago when I started taking life-saving and water safety courses. Back then, before the days of rescue tubes and non-contact rescue, water rescues involved swimming up to a struggling victim, avoiding the victim’s panicky aggressiveness, and swimming him back to safety in a secure and supportive position. Instructors stressed that the victim’s aggression toward the rescuer was his attempt to stay alive — not an attempt to hurt the rescuer; and we were taught that the victim would relax as we carried him to shore if he felt safe and secure with us and knew we were taking care of him. Of course, it took a lot of practice before we could safely and confidently approach a person fighting and panicking in the water and before we were ready to be lifeguards in a real situation.
The same is true in approaching a young child in the midst of an aggressive explosion. The boy in the video needs to hear the voice and feel the presence of someone he knows and trusts; and that person needs to be experienced and skilled in managing intense explosions in children.
I have been fortunate to work for 40 years at a school with children who are unusually bright but also intense. We like and admire our students and are able to provide them a friendly, nurturing, and supportive environment. We are both experienced and comfortable with extreme explosions from boys who don’t want to be bad but can’t help themselves at the moment, any more than the panicked swimmer can just relax on command and allow the lifeguard to swim him gently to shore.
I have watched many explosive young boys outgrow their tensions and explosions and become unusually gentle adults. I visited one such former student when he was about 17, a boy who had been extremely explosive as a child and then suddenly stopped and become patient, caring, and understanding. I was recalling with the boy’s parents an incident when the boy attacked me with a large stick. The boy’s father looked at him and asked, “Do you remember that?” The boy’s answer: “In those days I attacked so many people when I was angry that I can’t remember one from another.”
As a school, we had never done anything special for the boy beyond fulfilling the needs of any bright young boy. There were no significant disciplinary approaches, no behavior therapy, no intense counseling, and no medication; but we did have lots of experience with such boys, and we believed in the boy, admired his intellectual ability, and liked him. Because of our experience with other boys like him, we were confident that he would outgrow and discard his tantrums as soon as he was able. It happened because he had the opportunity to grow up for a few years in an environment that could be warm, friendly, and supportive in spite of his provocative behaviors. When the boy’s father asked him why he had suddenly changed, his answer was something like, “I didn’t want to be like that anymore.”
The handcuffed eight-year-old boy in the video may be dangerously explosive right now, but he is still an eight-year-old, with all the needs of a child that age. He needs care, support, security, and liking. An attempt should be made, while there is still time, to expose him to people who have enough experience with children like him, who can take his explosions in stride while teaching him and enjoying him, despite his difficulties.
William Dickerman is the Director of Admissions at Hampshire Country School (www.hampshirecountryschool.org), a small boarding school for bright, complex boys, most between the ages of 8 and 15, that in his words “most people find perplexing.” His credentials include a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and he is a licensed psychologist. He may be reached at email@example.com.