For the first few weeks of camp, I noticed Ricardo isolating himself from the rest of the kids. (I'll call him Ricardo but that isn't his real name.) I could tell that he could integrate himself if he wanted to, but he chose to keep separate from most of the other kids. I was extremely worried about him, and tried my best to help him out. I had him be my helper/assistant in the classroom, helping me gather the journals strewn across the room or find the pencils stashed in the oddest of corners. I played frisbee with him and invited other kids to join in and then left so they would play together. One day, Brian joined my group, and it seemed like Brian and Ricardo would be friends. I was so happy for him to have finally found someone! However, Brian never returned to camp after that day. Apparently he had some family issues and was not able to come back.
So Ricardo was alone again. I noticed the other kids reach out to him and try to include him, but he would recoil, afraid. I was really impressed with the other kids' compassion towards him, but Ricardo did not usually respond. Ricardo is a little bigger than the other boys and not very excited about soccer, the obession of the other kids his age.
Every day we write in our journals about various topics - If you had a superpower, what would it be? What makes you angry? If you could have any animal as a pet, which would you choose? The first few weeks, I let them each write half a page which took them 20 to 30 minutes. Then one day Tere came into the classroom. Tere is the parent advocate at camp, she works with the kids during the school year so they know from personal experience about her strict reputation. In my usually rowdy classroom, she had them silent in a second and writing an entire page in their journals with no talking. Then she had each of the kids come up individually to her with their entries and she would read them. She nodded in agreement, commenting loudly so the other kids would hear her compliments, and the kid always sauntered back to their desk with a smile. "This is the most beautiful thing I have ever read," she said in her thick Mexican accent.
After observing the changed behavior of the kids, I decided to try to emulate Tere's usage of strictness followed by flattery. Now my kids have to sit silently and write in their journals, an entire page. If they talk, I give them a check mark. Three check marks and they can't go on the field trip that day. This has been going rather well, except for Ricardo. Even with the strictness, he always leaves huge white spaces next to his entry, like a poem. Busy with the troublemaking twins and gang, I never confronted him about it and let him get away with it... until yesterday.
Yesterday I made everyone read me their journals. The topic was to describe a photograph in National Geographic and write how it makes you feel. It was a photo of a large bird catching a fish in its mouth. Everyone did a great job, writing an entire page in about 20 minutes (what an improvement!) and Ricardo was last. Everyone else had gone to snack/recess already.
Ricardo read me his entry, and it was really great! Filled with metaphors and interesting details, but about half as long as it was supposed to be.
"Ricardo, I've noticed that you don't always write a full page in your journal. I've let you get away with it, but I can see that you are a really great writer with really great ideas. Why don't you fill up the whole page?"
"I can't do it."
"But you are so smart and talented! I know you can do it! You just have to believe in yourself that you can do it!"
I had him repeat after me, doing some positive affirmations: "I am so smart! I can do this! I CAN DO THIS!" He started out repeating it quietly, but we were alone in the classroom so I encouraged him to yell it out. "I CAN DO THIS! I CAN WRITE A PAGE IN MY JOURNAL!"
Now he was smiling, which is a rare reward from him, since he usually looks so disengaged with the group.
"It's so good to see you smile! Now before you go to bed, I want you to do this again five times. Say them out loud. Do you want me to tell your sister to remind you, or will you remember to do them?"
"I will remember!" He said quickly, hurrying off to snack with a grin.
Now today was our scheduled field trip to the pool. We had about a half hour before we had to leave, and I told the group they each had to write a page in their journals or they wouldn't be coming with us. I said it very seriously, making discreet eye contact with Ricardo so he knew I wasn't joking. It applied to him too.
The room was silent with the scribbling of pencils. They often raise their hands to ask unrelated questions or how to spell something, but I told them just to guess the spelling, not to break the trance of writing. One by one, they raised their journals to show me they were finished, or in the twins' case, yelled "I'M FINISHED!" and smacked their pencil down on the desk. The noise level started to rise, so I started giving check marks like crazy. 3 checks and no field trip... so it was still silent, and one person was left writing... A few people were watching him, signaling me, letting me know that he was almost finished. The whole class held their breath as he wrote his last sentence... and he was finished! For the first time, Ricardo wrote an entire page of his journal. You can imagine how excited I was. I jumped up and down, high fives all around: "I am so proud of you! I knew you could do it!" So we all got to go to the pool.
In the past week or so, Ricardo has been much more engaged with the group. I found someone he works well with, one of the older girls going into 8th grade. He talks about video games with Sebastian and plays tag with another boy at snack. He has been smiling a lot more recently. Yay!