Words of Wisdom: Working with Troubled Students

Elisabeth in Shimane-ken wrote a blog entry with some good insight on how to approach one’s role as an ALT who deals with troubled students:

My advice to ALTs in Japan; always assume that the child acting out has something going on at home.  The teachers may not necessarily tell you, but I’ve found it’s often the case.  Only two weeks ago I was told that the little boy who pulled his pants down to show me his willy and was constantly punching me doesn’t have a mom.  The next time I went to his school he started acting out as per usual, and I gave him just a little bit more attention whereas before I was more stern with him about how punching is bad.  He immediately calmed down, behaved, and did his group work without complaint. I walked around the classroom checking groups, and whenever I checked his group he would just lean against me, as if I were a tree.  No punching, no kicking, no climbing on me and trying to ride me around like a horse; he just needed some human closeness, what the Japanese call “skinship.” As his vice-principal said “he needs love.”  It breaks my heart.

Another student, a junior high school girl, was temporarily abandoned by her only parent, her father, and left to live on her own.  She stopped coming to school and was confirmed to be living by herself with no support at all.  After reading about the state of child abuse in Japan I wasn’t surprised at the lack of response by staff members, but I was saddened by it.  I got her contact information from one of the few teachers actively worried about the girl, and have been in contact with her ever since.  She’s been chronically bullied her whole life, and from what she’s said the lack of action by her teachers (which she was fully aware of) has damaged her trust in the one group of people she used to believe in.  She’s been going to school regularly again and as far as I know her father has returned.  I still don’t know why he left in the first place.  She graduates in two weeks, and I am praying that high school brings her more friends and happiness.

As an ALT my options are limited.  As a foreigner I am an outsider.  As an assistant language teacher I don’t have the same clearance and authority as my Japanese colleagues.  I am well aware that my reaching out to these kids in distress can also be damaging to them, by encouraging potentially harmful dependencies or leading them to be further ostracized from the group.  Unfortunately, these two children are just examples of an alarming trend that seems to take Darwinism to a Lord of the Flies conclusion, which leads to the real power that ALTs have.

We can step outside of the cultural boundaries.  We can be the tree that the kids lean against for a few minutes in class.  We can be friendly and receptive to the lonely students who are just looking to make friends but don’t quite fit in.  We can be kinder to the rough students because we rotate schools and have days or weeks to cool down before we see them again.  Possibly the most important thing we can do is give them a glimpse of a wider world where they might fit in, too.  So let’s try to help these kids.  Let’s be there for them so that they can grow up to be healthy, happy adults.

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