"Oh, my gosh, he is only three," Kathy gasped mentally. This aggressive, defiant, disruptive, little boy brought teachers to tears. But Kathy knew where to turn for help.
Kathy took a deep breath as she firmly held Byron. His teacher had sent him to her office, and in short order he had knocked over chairs, threw papers from the desk, reached to pull pictures from the wall, threatened to pull the phone from its jack and tried to spit in Kathy's face.
From the very first day of school Byron exploded onto the scene. Arriving by school van, he would burst forth, shoving children from his path to race to the cafeteria, where he would fling food, run around, and lead a chant, "no, no, no, no." He kicked and grabbed from classmates, sprawled on the floor and screamed profanities that echoed throughout the building. He back-kicked when staff restrained him, inflicting bruises that lasted for weeks.
At home too, Byron became a terror. He turned three and started to curse, throw tantrums, yell "you're ugly" at his baby sister, kick doors and lock himself in his room. Divorced and raising three preschool age children while working full time and taking courses toward a college degree, Byron's mother Rachel felt overwhelmed by her middle child. Spanking and punishing did not work. "Oh, Lord, he had an attitude."
Byron became the impetus for change
Small Steps is a free preschool dedicated to providing low income, at risk children a solid educational and emotional foundation during the critical early years, and to serving even the most difficult to serve. As the new Program Director (equivalent of Principal), Kathy turned to Dr. Michelle Forester's Brief Evaluation Intervention Program, BEIP, at Texas Children's Hospital (TCH), for the expertise to help Byron and other students, better equip teachers and enable the school to fulfill its mission. She obtained an Episcopal Health Charities grant to bring BEIP to Small Steps.
A specialist worked with Byron in the classroom and on the playground, acknowledging his feelings, while firmly communicating limits and offering acceptable alternatives to get what he wanted. She modeled the approach with other hard to handle children too. Teachers gradually learned the techniques and regained control of their classes.
Three Little Pigs
To avoid naptime disruption, volunteers worked one on one with Byron and two other boys in the library. Byron seemed to fall in love with The Three Little Pigs, and asked to hear it every day. He was soon "reading" himself, turning the pages and reciting the story verbatim. Byron also came to enjoy individual weekly sessions with a TCH play therapist, where he could safely express his full range of emotions.
Also working with the therapist, Byron's mother began to spend "floor time" with Byron, to let him play act situations without her judging or teaching, and to encourage him to talk when he is angry. "That helped Byron a whole lot, her at one end and me at the other." Delighted with the results, Rachel taught the new approach to Byron's grandmother and dad.
Rachel remains amazed at the patience and love Small Steps has shown. Staff came to her job at the downtown library for her to sign papers so she did not lose time from work; the therapist maintained phone contact with Byron during the summer break. "God sent these people," Rachel says. "Any other school, would kick him out."
In the four-year-old class
Byron smiles broadly, fully engaged and happily sharing make-believe controls of an airplane with a classmate. He joyfully dons brightly colored sunglasses, but parts with them immediately when the teacher says it is time to clean up. He jumps up saying "I'm the helper."
He is a shining star in reading class and he proudly says, "I don't go to the library anymore after lunch, I go to class and go to sleep." Often at the end of the day he tells his mother, "I was good today. I love that school."
At home, Byron is calm and gentle with his siblings and friends. He helps his mama and tells her, "I love you." Rachel is so pleased at how bright, observant and playful he is. He notices her wrong turn in the car and jokes, "I guess we are not going home today." After church, waving arms and intoning deeply, in the pastor's voice he repeats from memory the scripture and sermon. Rachel beams, "I think he is very excited about himself."
Northside Houston, Inner Loop
- Licensed preschool. Provides a solid academic and developmental foundation to low income, at risk 2 - 5 year olds.
- Mental health professionals work with students on-site and also teach parents and teachers ways to handle children's aggressive behaviors and to foster positive relationships.
- Serves 60 children. Half the students are African American and half are Hispanic.
- Opened in 1999. No cost for families. Operations @$500,000 per year are fully supported by private funding.