I walked out of the reading lab to find a student sitting on the picnic bench outside my room. Everyone else from 3rd grade was gone, but here he sat. Serious, silent and visually distraught. One of the instructional assistants sat next to him, looking lost. I mouthed, “do you need help?” and she shook her head.
I walked over and crouched down to be at his eye level. He avoided my eye contact but didn’t shy away. I asked him what was wrong and he didn’t respond. I told him that I would let the aide go to her next class and that I would sit with him for a little while. I dismissed the other teacher and sat next to the 8 year old boy. I asked him once more what was wrong. Again, I was met with silence. My mind raced, trying to figure out what might be bothering this little guy. I decided that if he wasn’t up for talking to answer that maybe he could nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I started in with a series of questions that could be answered with the movement of his head. “Are you upset?” he shook his head. “Are you hurt?” He nodded. I learned that he wasn’t upset but he was hurt. It seemed like he was warming up to me ever so slightly so I tried to get a voiced answer. “It it your feelings that are hurt? Or it is your body?” When the question elicited no verbal response I reverted back to the yes and no questions. “Are you feelings hurt?” Head shake. “Is your body hurt?” Nod. “Did it happen on purpose?” Negative. “Was it an accident?” It was. I felt relieved. “It is your head?” It wasn’t, so I tried again. “Is it your stomach?” Nope. “Your back?” Bingo. We were getting somewhere–ever so slowly. I kept asking and found out that it had happened that morning at home. I repeated back what I had learned, so he knew I was paying attention and trying to help. “So you hurt your back this morning at home and it was an accident?” He nodded as his eyes filled with tears.
I wanted to get him to talk and tried to think about what might be holding him back. I let him know that I wanted to help him. I assured him that it was okay if he cried when he answered–I didn’t mind at all. I continued and told him that I could tell he was having a hard time and I wouldn’t make him go back to class until he was ready. That seemed to do it. He slowly started talking and crying. As we talked he opened up and told me more about what had happened. I reassured him that it would be okay and I knew that being hurt was no fun. I told him that we would walk to the nurse’s office together and she would know what to do to help with the pain. I assured him that everything would be alright and I was glad he let me know what was going on. As we walked he was able to tell me him name and who his teacher was.
When we got to the nurse’s office I passed along the information I’d gleaned. The school counselor walked in and I relayed the information to her as well. I left, knowing that he was in good hands.
The next couple hours I thought about this experience and tried to figure out what I had learned. Here are a few things that can help when talking to a child who is having a hard time communicating. (And many of these can work with adults as well.)
– Get on their level. Crouch, kneel or sit so you are as close to eye level as possible.
– Be patient. Don’t give up quickly. Give them time to think, process your questions, and be ready to answer.
– Ask ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions as needed.
– Try to think of other factors that might be hindering their communication (in this case feeling anxious about crying or having to go back to class before they are ready) and try to ease those worries.
– Let them know you care and you are sorry they are having a hard time.
– Reassure them that it will be okay.
– Acknowledge that you realize that it was difficult for them to share. Let them know that you appreciate them opening up and sharing.