Juan was a 7-year-old, sturdy kid with shortly-cropped black hair in the first grade at an inner city public school. Juan’ teacher asked me to work with him on his social skills and impulsivity. My mode of working with children is based on the principles of the child-centered approach, which calls for unconditional positive regard for the child and trust in the child’s ability to find his own way towards healing. This removes the adult-driven agenda as one creates an emotionally supportive play space in which the child explores avenues of his own healing.
The first time I brought Juan into the playroom, he knew exactly what to do.
The toys in my portable play toolkit were chosen to encourage expressive and dramatic play: human figures, rescue vehicles, a toy medical kit, crayons, and playdough. During our weekly sessions, the room itself became part of the play space as well, with its piles of school materials. Each session, Juan would initiate play and instruct me how to play. I served as a willing participant, but I strove to remain in a subservient role, allowing him to direct my actions to suit his needs. I acted as both participant and witness, narrating his play and giving words to the emotions that he played out before me.
Themes emerged, as did routines. One in particular was a challenge for me. At the end of every session, he would avoid putting a stop to his play and refuse to return to the classroom. He would hide behind furniture and boxes, making me feel like an ogre as I prodded and cajoled him out the door. It was during these times that I had to practice the three-part limit setting that the child-centered approach recommends. Instead of explaining why we had to leave, making idle threats, or begging him, the technique calls for a clear statement of the limits and possible choices, all grounded in empathy. Whereas many adults might waste energy explaining over and over why it was imperative to leave the room, I displayed empathy by stating, “You hate when playtime ends. You’d prefer not to go back to class.” But this was only the first step; then came the limit. “Our time together is over.” And the choice, “You can hold my hand or skip beside me on the way.” Holding my breath, I would walk out the door, praying that he would follow. Sometimes he did.
However, our last session together was different. In previous weeks, we had made a calendar that counted down the sessions until our final one. He knew that we would no longer be meeting to play each week. Towards the end of our time together, he climbed into an empty cardboard box, sat down, and pulled the flaps over his head. I sat quietly, waiting.
After a few moments, his voice emanated from the box.
“Am I allowed to curse in here?”
I fought the urge to ask why he wished to know.
“You want to make sure you follow the rules,” I said. “In this room, you are allowed to say anything you want.”
Silence. A few moments later, he popped up and looked me dead in the eye.
“F*** you, you f***ing N*****!” he exclaimed.
Before I could even blink, he sat back down. But this time the flaps were left open. I stood up from my chair and moved closer to the box, peering down at him. He looked up at me with expectant eyes.
“You are so mad at me for ending our play time together,” I said.
Juan nodded and sat still for another moment or two. He looked up.
“I want to pollinate you,” he said.
Now this was one of those moments that you read about in textbooks: a child speaks his truth in a metaphor so clearly that there is nothing you can do but witness it. Unless of course, you lose your bearings, as I did. All of my child-centered skills vanished as I broke one of the cardinal rules of the approach: I asked a question.
“Do you know what that means?” I asked. My curiosity had gotten the better of me.
“Yes, it’s what the bees and the birds do with the flowers,” he responded.
I collected myself and breathed into his truth.
“Yes,” I said. “You are so mad at me for ending our play time together, and you are also feeling very loving.” I sat down and he remained in the box, quiet.
After a bit, he stood and climbed out, holding his hand out to take mine.
“I’m ready to go now,” he said. And so we did.
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