I wrote the following article and it was published on Apr. 2, 2002 in the Christian Science Monitor and other papers around the country. It appears here in a slightly edited form.
As a kindergarten teacher, I have important work to do when "Dennis" walks through the door in August.
Dennis isn't his real name, of course, except in the newspaper's comic strip, Dennis the Menace.
Just about every kindergarten has a Dennis (or Denise) in it. He's usually, but not always, a boy. And, he is an important person in the class.
Still, his classmates and their parents seem to wish Dennis were in someone else's school.
Dennis doesn't mind. He's loud. He cuts in line. He pushes. He wants things his way. Sometimes he'll hit someone to get what he wants, especially if no one’s looking. By accident, of course.
He takes too many blocks, knocks over other kids' buildings, and takes off when it's time to put them away.
At story time, when I tell him, "Sit on your bottom!" Dennis gets on his knees. If the story doesn't interest him, he finds someone to annoy, makes a rude noise on purpose, then laughs.
At table time, Dennis paints on his neighbor's paper. He can't use scissors, except to cut someone else's paper.
He likes to play rough at recess. He chases. He takes other kids' bikes without asking. He splashes in puddles.
If someone's in "time out," it's probably Dennis. He's in time out more often than any other child. He's the first one to visit the principal.
He doesn't have friends.
Dennis is a lot of extra work for me. But there is no work more urgent, because helping Dennis is the key to having a successful year.
Here's why: If I can bring out the helpfulness and kindness that's in Dennis, everyone will know that I care for all the members of the class – yes, even Dennis—yes, everyone.
Everyone can relax and feel secure.
Bringing out the best in a child like Dennis takes grit and gumption. There's no fast formula for success. Every Dennis is unique.
Finding the keys to Dennis's heart requires fluctuating combinations of intuition, gentleness, honesty, clear expectations, firm limits, and sensible consequences, all applied with patience, courage, consistency, calmness, and compassion.
To start, it helps to remember to take some slow, deep breaths to find some calm so I may be able to see clearly enough what to do to help him. I must open my heart.
I imagine being in Dennis's place. I breathe in his anger, his fear, his discouragement. I go inside the dark woods and sit there with him. I breathe out calm. Then I see myself through Dennis's eyes, hear my voice through Dennis's ears. Before I say anything, I relax my face. I imagine the kind, wise, and forgiving teacher I would want to help me if I were Dennis.
I give that compassionate teacher a chance to say something, to smile. To understand. To relax and find a way out of the darkness and into the light.
It may take months to earn Dennis's trust. But as winter melts into spring, I see clear signs of change. He sees I understand. Dennis stops denying he's lonely. He wants friends to play with.
Gradually, he's brave enough to try new skills at making friends, at being helpful and caring. He finds pleasure in his new playmates. He cares about what others think of him. He smiles and cooperates.
Gradually, Dennis becomes a likable and well-liked member of the class.
It's not just Dennis who benefits. As the teacher, I benefit. The class feels more secure. I’m happy to come to work because I like Dennis. He’s my bud. Dennis's classmates benefit, too. They know their teacher cares for everyone. Everyone.
There’s a good test to find out if my work with Dennis is really done: I find the most socially aware and outspoken member of the class (usually a girl), take her aside, and say, "I'm such a lucky teacher. What a great class this is! I like every single kid in this class."
If she asks, "Even Dennis?" I know I still have some important work to do.
Tomorrow: A "Dennis" remembers his teachers.