Helping someone who's shutting down
March 24, 2010 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever seen a student slowly shut down over the course of the year?

I teach Junior High, and I have a student who loves Art (although I don't teach that subject).

Without going into too many details, let's just say her family life has become unstable and I don't know how much longer she'll be at the school. She went from being someone very attentive and very eager to putting her head down and totally shutting down (most recently it's gotten worse).

So, any concrete suggestions here? Usually in cases like this I try and find something the kid is interested in and make some connections (and I have had some success with her with other things). The caveat is though that I suck at Art, utterly and completely.

Should I just teach the class and not try and make much more of a connection since she may be leaving or should I really try and find some darned neat Art things to get her enthused (and focused). It may seem obvious that a teacher should always try, but I worry that by pushing her too much right now she may shut down even more (I'm in touch with her family and they're very supportive of my efforts).

What would the master teacher do here?
posted by fantasticninety to Education (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My heart goes out to that poor child. Just tell her you are there if she needs to talk, or if she needs a friend.
posted by francesca too at 7:52 PM on March 24, 2010

Yeah, this is heart breaking. I'm not in Education, but is there someone you could ask about this, like the guidance counselor?
posted by cestmoi15 at 8:01 PM on March 24, 2010

Don't go for this alone. Assuming there's other teachers for this student, see if any of them can possibly help out by engaging her interest, where you can not.

You're not alone - you're part of a faculty of staff. Use your resources. ;-)
posted by GJSchaller at 8:06 PM on March 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

Some ideas for art-related activities that don't require artistic talent:

Start an after-school art club (or just hold an "open lab" where anyone interested can wander in and hang out doing vaguely art-y kinds of things)

Take some kids to an art museum or a gallery.

Find someone (a friend, someone in the community) who has a collection of [insert art here] that you think the kids might be interested in seeing or hearing about.

Even if you personally don't make a connection with this girl, try to get her to participate. It can be quite comforting to a kid to know that other kids share her interests. She might find her "tribe" or at least a friend.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:14 PM on March 24, 2010

You might not be the art teacher, but is there one at the school you can talk to about this? Maybe the other teacher can make a connection.
posted by kellyblah at 8:17 PM on March 24, 2010

Nthing that you should reach out to your colleagues. But as for what you can personally do:

Can you find a connection between your subject and Art? I can think of good connections between almost all of the junior high subjects and Art -- for instance, if you teach math, you could explain the Golden Ratio to her, or if you teach science, you could show her some of the beautiful scientific illustrations out there and encourage her to attempt her own illustrations. And so on.

Basically, giving her something to cling to, for lack of a better word, especially if it relates to something she's good at and enjoys, is a tremendous gift, especially from a teacher.

And otherwise, just be there for her, as much as you can as a teacher.
posted by devinemissk at 8:25 PM on March 24, 2010

My junior high art teacher let my friends and me spend lunch/recess time in the classroom drawing or working on projects. She also encouraged us to do art-related stuff for the school (got us involved in painting murals, theater sets, and decorating for fundraising events). You may be able to facilitate that type of thing for this student, regardless of your artistic ability, through your connections at the school or just by offering her your time.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:29 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you catch her during some down time and just ask her how she's doing? She might not have anyone to talk to about it, and might really appreciate the opportunity. A lot of kids don't have many caring adults in their life, so if the family situation is going crazy she might feel like the only 2 adults she had are no longer available.

Though I wouldn't quite describe my family life as "unstable" at that age, I was definitely a kid who slowly shut down over the course of a school year in junior high. My teachers must have noticed the straight-A student who slowly stopped turning in homework and showing up to class, but none of them ever said anything to me. I think that made it even harder, feeling like either nobody noticed that I was going down the tubes or (even worse) that nobody cared. Sometimes just letting a person know you care is enough to make a difference.

So yeah, ask how she's doing, and let her know she can come talk to you any time. And mean it, in case she takes you up on the offer.
posted by vytae at 8:30 PM on March 24, 2010 [10 favorites]

Do you have counselors at your school? I'd start with them. Frankly, it's their job.
posted by bardic at 9:40 PM on March 24, 2010

Let her know that you are available to talk to about anything. Is there a counselor at your school you can seek advice from or refer the student to?
posted by nestor_makhno at 9:42 PM on March 24, 2010

I've seen a good number of otherwise fantastic students slowly shut down over time, and it's usually in response to something I'm either not aware of or unable to help fix, like family difficulties. That said, the counselor is a good place to start. Maybe not "Hey, go see Mr. Counselor" because that's just abrupt, and it might seem like you're brushing them off. You talk to the counselor, let them know your concerns, and ask how to proceed from there.

If there aren't counselors, then you need to try to talk to the student's other teachers, and see if, working together, you can help the student. Helping the student, though, is more of an "If you need someone to talk to, we're here for you" kind of thing. Let them know you'll help where you can, and encourage them to use the help they're offered, but don't pressure them.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:04 PM on March 24, 2010

Seconding referring to the counselor and making sure her other teachers know she needs a little bit of extra care. If you can find a way to integrate an art project option or two with your own subject's classes, even better, but don't do it if it feels forced or weird (forced or weird as you know, to the average middle schooler= OH MY GOD YOU ARE PAYING TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO ME STOP STOP). It will take her teachers at whatever school she might end up at months to figure out what is up with her, if she ever leaves at all, and the more connection she has to school in the meantime the better.

But mostly yes to vytae's advice- make sure you say hello by name and meet her eyes every day, and sincerely ask how her day is going as she walks into the classroom. If she says not so great, ask if there's anything you can do to help make it better, and mean it. It doesn't have to be obtrusive; if you have some sort of hallway obligation you can do this with other students, too- I am often surprised at the connections I make with kids by making a point of doing this most days. It will mean something to her that you asked, that you made a point of asking, that you are clearly interested in her well-being- she'll know you're there for her, that you care, that you're available, and she can choose to take advantage of it if she likes.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:30 PM on March 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I favorited Meg_Murray's comment about allowing her and any of her friends to chill in your room during lunch/free hours. Although you aren't in the arts yourself, there were two art teachers at my high school (a husband and wife actually) that allowed students to do this. One taught photography and the other mixed media arts, so during lunch kids would be processing photos in the darkroom while their friends ate just a few feet away; or in the other room, the teacher would allow students that proved themselves - even if they'd never taken any courses - to use equipment that she never used (heated press, screen printing tools, etc.), even outside of normal class hours. If they knew they could rely on the student's know-how and dependability, they'd let them hang out and do their thing in the back corner of the classroom during other classes and even let them chill on weekends or teacher workshop days.

As I'm sure you're aware, the kind of bond this creates, even with very minimal communication, can really make school go from a place that the student dreads going to on a daily basis to a safe haven in times of need. A place she knows she can go for a little while and release steam if it is her home she is afraid of.

I'm also in the camp that thinks it's a better idea to let her other instructors know what is going on with her, but allow a counselor to be the one that really takes her under their wing. I know when I was going through my teenage ruts, I'd much prefer that teachers be aware of my problem, but not baby me or try to be buddy-buddy with me out of no where. This is obviously appreciated but it might come off as fake, and that is the absolutely last thing you want a teenager to think, no less one who may be having trust issues to begin with.
posted by june made him a gemini at 3:00 AM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

All that aside, I want to thank you for what you are doing. It would have meant the world to me had anyone, especially someone I (in teen rage mode) thought couldn't possibly understand me, tried to proactively make my educational experience a little more enjoyable life easier to cope with until I had a little more control over the direction of it.
posted by june made him a gemini at 3:13 AM on March 25, 2010

I did this in high school. My art teacher prettymuch let me live in her classroom regardless of whether she was there. It maybe didn't keep me sane, but it gave me something to do in a place where I didn't have to deal with people or problems. My English teacher never said anything that I remember, but I'm sure she knew; she'd had me the year before in Jr. High. Elsewhere I was being booted down to remedial math (which I squeaked out of with a C-) & had to withdraw from Chemistry, but my grades stayed rock steady in English despite my worst efforts. To this day I am grateful to her.

My own experience, though, has taught me that people can be like injured animals when it comes to emotional distress: We hide the pain, even when it's enough to make us want to die. We deny, deny, deny, and when we do reach out for help, so many people would rather brush it off than will hear and act, which makes admissions seem pointless at best. I gather you've already been in touch with her family...does this mean they're nodding and smiling but not DOING anything, or is she getting professional help and it's just not working fast enough? If she's not in therapy, and the effects of her distress are that visible, I say get with Guidance Counseling. Maybe they can direct the family to step up the level of help.

Whether you bump it up to counseling or not, the awareness that someone out there cares, even if the student is not willing to engage, is important. But avoid the "you can do better"/"I noticed your grades are falling" tactics. I'm sure she knows it, she's probably hearing it incessantly at home, and if she ever cared about her grades before, it probably eats at her every waking moment. From my perspective, being an oasis of caring for a troubled child is a lot more important than whatever's going on with her academics.
posted by Ys at 5:14 AM on March 25, 2010

Best answer: Middle school teacher here, nominated for state "Teacher of the Year":

Immediately convene a team meeting of the administration, teachers and everyone who works with this kid.

You can all discuss what you're seeing, and as much as it sucks, she's not the first kid who's done this, so you can be certain the school has procedures in place for kids when this happens.

It's critical to get everyone together and on the same page instead of one person talking to the counselor, someone else talking to the principal, etc.

For you personally, ask her to have lunch with you (and friends if she wants); get her to help you organize, clean, watch funny YouTube videos, whatever.

Just let her chat. You never need to hit a middle school kid with "we're here to help you" verbally; just show her a safe haven and let her hang with you.

Good luck; it's nice to know there are caring teachers out there.
posted by dzaz at 5:51 AM on March 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

I had a student named Amanda several years ago who seemed to be unraveling as the year went on. I started with "Hey there. You seem a little down. Is everything ok?" Of course, she said everything was just fine. I then notified guidance, and her counselor did some checking on her and her family situation. Soon after, Amanda found out that she and I had the same open period, and asked if she could "use the computer for homework." What she actually did was come in, sit down in a desk against the wall, and sleep for an hour. She never told me what was wrong, and the counselor would only say that social services and the police were involved. The next year, I saw her at graduation, and she thanked me for "all my help." Help?? I felt like I hadn't done enough for her.

My point is, you don't need to "do" much of anything, except the behind-the-scenes stuff that dzaz and others suggest. Be subtle, but let her know that you've noticed, and that you care, and let her tell/show you what she needs; maybe she just needs a place to relax. You don't need to have a single interest in common to do this.

Good luck with your Amanda.
posted by SamanthaK at 8:01 AM on March 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, to answer your question, we have students who shut down - at least once a year. We do what dzaz said he does, convening everyone who has contact or concerns about the student(s) so we all know to be on the alert. SamanthaK has it just right for the personal interaction. Just be there for your student and let them know your room is a safe place for him/her to hang. And know that even if s/he doesn't thank you, you have done what was necessary and right.
posted by Lynsey at 9:32 AM on March 25, 2010

Response by poster: There were a lot of great answers here, and some fairly obvious ones in retrospective. Actions taken:

– spoke to guidance counselor (they'll speak)
– spoke to other teachers
– set up some individual art projects for her to work on in class

That's about all that can be done in the short term. Thanks for all the input. Seriously, thank you!
posted by fantasticninety at 4:11 PM on March 26, 2010

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