By Rebecca Pelletier, corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team
The student’s pencil is moving across the page. She is sitting up tall, and every now and then she leans over to help the student next to her. As I look on, a smile spreads across my face. I feel like jumping for joy; I feel like grabbing hands with the student and spinning her around and around until we collapse on the ground. Instead, I pick up a small green sticky note, and begin to write. Dear Natalie*, You have been doing your very best work this morning. Great job! I am so happy to see the best you today. Keep up the hard work! – Miss Bex.
Meet Natalie, a clever student in my class who has had some difficulty adjusting to the 3rd grade. From my very first day in the classroom, I’ve watched Natalie struggle to join the class as the teacher gives instruction; instead of sitting on the carpet with her peers, Natalie sits at her desk. When instruction is over and students are asked to work on assignments, Natalie finds every excuse not to do her work, from needing an eraser, to saying, “I don’t understand the assignment.” When a solution is suggested, she pouts at her desk until the lesson is over.
Concerned about her lagging coursework, my partner teacher and I attempted to get Natalie involved in the classroom. We helped her set goals, which we wrote down and taped to the desk. We gave her individual instruction, made calls home, and even revoked her recess privileges when she failed to compete her assignments, but nothing seemed to motivate Natalie. Perhaps most frustrating for me was that, after several one-on-one talks with Natalie, I knew that Natalie knew what she needed to do to complete her homework assignments. A phone call to her 2nd teacher, who is now teaching at a different school, revealed that this kind of behavior was extremely out-of-character for Natalie.
Alongside Natalie’s difficulty in completing her work, my partner teacher and I noticed another trend in Natalie’s behavior. It didn’t seem as though Natalie had made friends with any of the other students. In fact, on several occasions, Natalie’s behavior suggested that she already felt alienated from her classmates. She rarely went out of her way to interact with them, and when she did, it was often in an unkind manner. In response to this observation, we tried an experiment. We moved desks around in the classroom until Natalie was sitting next to Jennifer*, a friendly and warm student who participates regularly in class.
Natalie’s transformation wasn’t magical. For the past two weeks, I’ve found myself kneeling next to Natalie and Jennifer’s table frequently throughout the day, coaching Natalie just as I had before. But very gradually, I’ve seen a change in her behavior. It began on a Tuesday. On this Tuesday in particular, Natalie worked willfully on her assignment for 45 minutes before losing focus. A few days later, she followed instructions for an hour, then two hours—then the whole morning.
One day, I looked toward her desk to check on her during carpet time, only to see an empty chair. For a moment I panicked. Where is Natalie? I thought. Then I looked down at the carpet to see her sitting cross-legged next to Jennifer, her hand raised in the air to answer a question.
My work with Natalie isn’t done. I still occasionally have to repeat instructions for her. She still sometimes uses unkind words, and her effort to do her best work isn’t consistent yet. But for now, Natalie is working hard to improve. She is getting back on track. All she needed to do it was a friend.
*Students name changed to protect privacy.
About the author:
Rebecca Pelletier is a 2013-2014 corps member serving on the Sun Life Financial team at Mattahunt Elementary School in Mattapan.