Her hair was cut short and curled. It didn’t look bad, but my instinct was to say nothing about it so I kept my comments to myself as she passed me and waved hello on her way into the classroom. She kept her winter jacket on, and as she entered the class she pulled up the hood. Someone later told me that her foster mother had cut her hair back short—as a way to punish her. She keeps the hood on when she’s around her peers, so they won’t see what was done to her.
The little girl is just six years old. She lives in a foster home, her biological mother lives in a homeless shelter, her two brothers are in psychiatric facilities. This girl has already had two stays in a child psychiatric hospital. Her biological mother, who has a violent and explosive temper, is in and out of the psychiatric hospitals herself. One day this little girl came to school with dual handprint bruising on her neck—a failed attempt by her biological mother to choke her to death. Now the little girl is in foster care, but she doesn’t behave well, so they punish her. She’s been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder, a serious combination of psychiatric illnesses. She presents with chronic anxiety, severe aggression, self-injurious behavior, suicidal thoughts, sexualized behaviors and possibly command hallucinations. That was in her most recent discharge summary.
She has a fear of the dark, a fear of being alone, trouble falling asleep and chronic nightmares. She is easily frustrated and explosive and she isn’t doing well at school. Today I found out that she will be going into the therapeutic program that I created for this district. That’s why I was observing. I followed her into a small office space where she was taking a break with a teacher assistant. She was using finger paints. Her hands were covered in paint and the paper was a muddy mess. It was time to clean up and move on, but she refused. On her own terms, a minute or so later, she said she was done. She looked up at me on her way to the sink, checking my face for disapproval for the way she had initially refused to cooperate. She didn’t see anything like that in my face and I’m sure she wondered what I saw in her. Her trauma has told her test people to see if they can be trusted.
I had read in her file that she likes to keep things neat, and that one of her favorite activities is to clean and neaten. We made it to the sink and she reached out with her wrists so she could turn on the faucet without covering it in paint. She struggled there for a moment, and then I spoke up, even though I was supposed to be an unobtrusive observer. “It will be hard to keep the sink clean,” I told her, “with hands full of paint.” How will she turn on the faucet and how will she press the soap dispenser without getting paint all over the place, I asked her.” I put down my things and offered to be her hands for the faucet and the soap dispenser. She beamed at this solution. “Do you like warm water or cold water?” I asked her. She liked having a preference and she liked that it mattered to me, so she had a lot to say about why warm water was better. I was in no hurry and neither was she.
She scrubbed her hands, applied more soap, rinsed, and went through the whole procedure again, getting every last bit of paint off. I commented on all these micro-events, these tiny moments, creating an intense focus on the present and on this simple nurturing activity. Time slowed down. I could tell this girl felt cared for in this brief moment. I complimented her about the way she skillfully got every bit of paint off her hands and I remarked on how we worked well as a team to solve a problem together. Then she took the paper towels and thoroughly wiped down the sink. I told her that I thought that was very kind of her and that she seemed like a really thoughtful girl.
I left her in the office with the teacher assistant so I could explain to the staff how they should try to work with her. When I came back, 15 minutes later, there was a drawing on the desk with my name on it and signed by her (someone else did the writing). One side of the paper was a crudely drawn hand and a few crudely drawn hearts. She must not have been satisfied with this because on the other side, the side with the names, someone had shown her how to draw a hand by tracing her own hand. She covered the paper with hands and colored one of them orange (same as the finger paint we had washed off earlier).
You don’t have to do a lot of analysis to understand why she drew those hands. “Thank you for caring about me, for taking the time to see me, for helping me. You’re on the right track, you know what I need, maybe you can help the others help me.” Maybe what we can offer her will not be enough, but we will give her the best opportunity to succeed in a public school, because her therapeutic program is highly proficient with the BBTIPC and her teacher is one of the most talented, compassionate teachers I have ever worked with, and beyond that, this teacher is an unbelievably nice person.