treatment facility school kids
Being a teacher in a treatment facility school means that my classroom is largely filled with boys. I’m used to their high level of energy and need for movement throughout the day. Although during academic times, for the most part, my group was fairly calm and focused on their academic tasks. That is until Toby arrived. Toby was like a bull in a china shop. At ten years old, he had not developed any sense of personal boundaries.
He was admitted after being in at least twelve different foster homes, all who gave up on him due to his aggression and high safety needs. Toby was not pleased to be placed in a residential program and he let all of us know it.
Learning more about his family history helped staff to understand some of his issues, although it didn't make it any easier. Toby tested positive for drugs at birth and was taken away from his parents immediately. His grandparents tried to help, but they were unable to care for him and turned him over to social services. Toby was placed in all types of foster homes, all across the state, but never stayed anywhere long enough to attach to anyone. Each time he moved to a new home, his clothes and toys were left behind. The only object that Toby always carried with him, was a picture of his birth parents, given to him by his caseworker. Toby’s school experience was similar and he was asked to leave several programs due to his angry outbursts and destruction of property.
Toby’s first day in class was a challenge. He was unable to sit in his seat longer than 5 minutes and ran around the room grabbing items from his peers’ desks and either destroying them or putting them in his pocket. He pushed other students and was often in their space. We talked as a class about how some children are very angry when they first arrive and sometimes being scared comes out as anger. His peers understood, but it didn't make Toby very popular. These behaviors continued for many days until a set of keys disappeared from his therapist’s desk. Due to his history, we asked Toby to empty his pockets and show that he didn't have the item as he stated. Toby was angry but agreed to listen to us. He pulled out some toy cars, candy, wrappers, rocks, random pieces of paper, and the missing key. As I started to examine the papers, Toby became hysterical and starting screaming and hitting staff. One of the papers was actually a picture of his family. He forgot about the missing key and was worried about the picture being thrown away.
It was good to see this range of emotions from Toby instead of watching him always being angry. When I realized the importance of the photo to him, I suggested that maybe we could make a frame for his picture so that he could put it in his room and keep it safe. After a lot of persuasion about how his belongs could stay safe in his room now, we created a beautiful frame with construction paper, tape, stickers, and markers. Toby even created a stand for the back of the frame so it would stand up on his dresser.
School staff couldn’t believe it, but Toby actually sat and worked on his project for nearly an hour. He was respectful of the materials and wanted to keep drawing even after his frame was complete. While drawing, Toby talked about his last foster home and shared a lot about his life. He talked about how angry it made him that he always had to leave everything behind. When we were done, I asked Toby if he’d like to pick out a backpack and some school supplies to take back to his cottage. I suggested that maybe he could write a story and draw a picture for homework that night, then I would write one back to him as well. Toby initially became angry again and said that he didn't’t want anything from us as he would have to just leave it behind again. I assured Toby that these would be his supplies, and as long as he could be safe and respectful with him, he could carry them back and forth to school to use when he wanted.
I’d like to say we never had any behavior issues with Toby again, but that wouldn’t be true. We were, however, able to use his interest in art as a way to connect with him and help process his past. We made sure to hang up his drawings and praise him for being so responsible with his school supplies, which was always true.
Ashley sat by herself for three days, hardly moving, and never interacting with any of us. I did notice though that she appeared to be interested in what we were doing. Her peers were curious about her but respected her need to be alone. On the fourth day, Ashley made eye contact with one of the girls her age. Amelia noticed and jumped at the opportunity to interact with the new girl. She slid her desk closer to the door, closer to Ashley, and asked if she wanted to help with the art project that we were doing in class.
Ashley’s huge eyes got even bigger as she watched her new friend draw, cut, and glue pieces of paper together to create a masterpiece. Ashley looked up at me, and I smiled and nodded my head. She reached for a marker and starting drawing. Before we knew it, Ashley was creating the most beautiful butterfly that we’d ever seen. Although the class had moved on, Ashley continued to draw, to cut, and to glue several more creations. Ashley’s smile was huge and she moved her desk inside the classroom.
When school was over that day, I gave Ashley a backpack and put her school supplies inside. When I placed it on her back, she started crying and asked me if she could keep it. She told me that she never had her own backpack or school supplies before.
Ashley has been here for six months now and looks much happier and healthier. I swear she has grown three inches! Ashley proudly carries her backpack to and from the school day and excitedly shows me her homework each morning.
She cherishes her markers and drawing paper and makes a welcome picture each time a new student enters the classroom. She also creates a new student box with school supplies so that each new child has something that helps them be successful in school, and that belongs to them. Ashley is quickly learning and has caught up academically with her peers. She is so thankful for her school supplies and a safe place to learn.
You can help provide school supplies to a child like Toby or Ashley!
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When Ashley first arrived at her new treatment facility school, she was nine years old, but looked more like a five-year-old. She had huge brown eyes, and her hair was long and wild. She only had the clothes on her back, which were dirty and too small. She had no personal belongings.
Initially, Ashley was too scared to even enter the classroom. I set up a desk for her right outside the door where she could see us and we could see her. I told her that she could stay there until she felt safe enough to join the group. On her desk, I put a pen, pencil, paper, a coloring book, and a new box of markers. I checked in with Ashley every frequently and observed as she watched her peers closely but refused to talk or even touch the items on her desk.
I know how it feels to struggle to pay for health insurance, medicines, therapy,…school supplies! But I don’t know how it feels to NOT be able to pay for it at all, or not to have access to what your children need. If I had to work two jobs to pay the rent? How would I advocate for them or keep them safe?
The children is these facilities have not only experienced the grueling journey of mental illness, but have had ADDED ON them traumatic experiences like sexual abuse, physical abuse, being born addicted to drugs, being taken away from your drug-addicted parents, being abandoned, being in 12 different foster homes before even going to middle school, and many more.
It is absolutely unfathomable to me. So, I give. Because I can. Sometimes I can only give a little and others I can give more.
When I do, I always ask myself “Why me?” How did I get so incredibly fortunate?
I believe we are all responsible for the children in our community. If we invest in them now, we all will have a better future.
Why I Give
I have two children, both with serious mental health issues. My entire life has revolved around their mental and physical health. They had IEP’s, went to “alternative” schools, had a million doctor appointments, therapy appointments, tutors, etc. Our life was so intense and their needs were so different. We had one screaming uncontrollably while the other was too quiet.
I know how difficult it is to have a child with a mental illness. And, I know more than I would like to know about treatment facility schools.