My Magic Wand...Well, It's Not Working
September 11, 2013 3:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm the special education teacher in a therapeutic high school and I've got an amazingly smart male student with an assortment of behaviors (sleeping, work refusal) and diagnoses (depression, selective mutism) who needs help and I'm looking for some suggestions. Have you ever successfully worked with a kid like this? How?

Suffice it to say that I've never worked with such a stubborn kid.

Basically, he has a history of trauma and he's been diagnosed with clinical depression. That's why he's in my therapeutic school. He goes to classes, individual and group therapy daily, and the entire staff reports the same: he usually sits in class, puts his head on the desk, and will sometimes fall asleep. When awake and a class direction is given ("Everyone write a sentence about ..."), he sits there, smiles, silent as a stone, and does nothing.

He shrugs and doesn't talk.

We've had meetings with the kid and his parents and they report the same at home. His recent psych evaluation indicates a relatively high IQ and no learning disabilities. So he is capable of doing the work, he just doesn't.

We've met with the kid and put behavioral plans into place (before my time), where the credit system was explained to him ("if you do ..., then you will graduate, but if you do nothing, you'll be here until you're 22," etc.). They've also put a behavioral plan where the kid was given a choice (he can choose to write or the staff will write for him, or he can begin now or wait 2 minutes), and also an incentive plan (he loves video games, so if he did x, he'd earn video time).

Nothing. This kid did NOTHING. In 2 years at this school he's earned less than one semester's worth of credit.

There have been very brief (3-5) day stretches where he would occasionally respond to a demand and just do it. When that has happened, there's been no rhyme or reason. He got a lot of positive reinforcement when he did the work, but then just as suddenly, he'd again go quiet.

Other notes:
* he has been drug tested and is clean, so the sleeping isn't substance-related
* he is not on any medication that would cause this physically
* he has the same lack of response to therapy where he sits and doesn't speak
* we cannot change his school placement

What HAS worked for me, in response to the shrugging, is to smile and say I'm not fluent in shrug, could he please use words? And then he smiles and starts talking. But that's as far as I've gotten.

If you were/knew/worked with a kid who had depression and selective mutism and a work refusal issue, please share your ideas. How do we get this kid to do the work? And what should we absolutely not do?
posted by kinetic to Education (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should have added that we have explained all of this to his prescribing psychiatrist who does not think this is med-related, so changing his meds is out as an option.
posted by kinetic at 3:58 AM on September 11, 2013

Does he say why he's refusing?
posted by bunderful at 4:04 AM on September 11, 2013

Response by poster: Does he say why he's refusing?

No. He just smiles and puts his head down. If he's told the rule is no heads on the desk, then he sits upright, smiles and says and does nothing. Just smiles and stares straight ahead...for up to 45 minutes. In discussions, he clearly understands that no work equals staying until he's 22 and possibly even then not graduating, so he knows the consequences. In previous semesters, they tried letting his grades (all F's) demonstrate the consequences. Work has also been adapted so all he has to do is pick up a pencil and write something/anything in order to get credit, and he still chooses to sit quietly.

I want to add...he's been thoroughly tested and this isn't a learning disability. He can do the work.
posted by kinetic at 4:12 AM on September 11, 2013

So he is capable of doing the work, he just doesn't.

Clearly he isn't capable of doing it. Academically maybe yes. But if he has mental health issues that are not being effectively treated and this is how they manifest, then he can't do it. So probably the first thing I would suggest for you as his teacher is to not evaluate his abilities by IQ and intelligence tests. They're not relevant. And as a parent of a student who had similar-appearing struggles toward the end of high school, telling him he's smart enough to do it he just needs to do it is harmful not helpful. It just adds more shame to the mix.

Is he getting any kind of treatment that's not school-related? Everything in school doesn't count as that's focused on getting him to perform and graduate. He needs treatment that's focused on getting him to heal.

And as far as carrots and sticks, as much as he hated his high school my son would have preferred staying until age 22 to graduating and being an adult. He didn't feel equipped to handle it. It's very, very common.

Stop with the evaluations and assessments and get the kid hooked up with a competent therapist who's focused on his longterm mental health. (Not that it's within your power to do this.)
posted by headnsouth at 4:15 AM on September 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Is changing his psychiatrist out of the question?
posted by Salamander at 4:18 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Headnsouth, good info and I should have been more clear. I meant that from a disability/IQ/academic standpoint, the work expectation is within his academic ability. In other words, it's not like there's underlying language processing or dyslexia issues. And we don't test him more than the legally-required every three years. His most recent eval was this year.

He does not get outside help (parents report he refuses to go), we have no authority to change psychiatrists.

And the in-school therapy does not discuss's a therapeutic school where the therapy is personal and addresses what an outside therapist would address. The discussions aren't about getting him to perform in school. But my understanding is again, that he doesn't talk during therapy, and they've changed his therapist several times in the hopes that he'd bond with someone. He hasn't. But he does seem to like me (according to his mother), so I'm hoping I can get some ideas to make him feel less anxious because I assume this is probably mostly anxiety.
posted by kinetic at 4:25 AM on September 11, 2013

Best answer: I should have been more clear. I meant that from a disability/IQ/academic standpoint, the work expectation is within his academic ability. In other words, it's not like there's underlying language processing or dyslexia issues.

It was clear, it's just the wrong way to define his ability when he's suffering from mental illness that prevents him from doing the work. There is an underlying issue: mental illness.

And the in-school therapy does not discuss's a therapeutic school where the therapy is personal and addresses what an outside therapist would address. The discussions aren't about getting him to perform in school.

Should he bond with an in-school therapist will that person continue to treat him after he graduates? No, they're paid by the school and their goal (regardless of what they might talk about in session) is to have their student-patients succeed in school and graduate. It's a goal that makes sense for a school, nothing inherently wrong with it at all. But it's not a goal the student-patient shares or sees as possible or sees as valuable or ..... ?????? And he knows the therapy isn't about him, it's about his behavior. He's smart enough to see that.

they've changed his therapist several times in the hopes that he'd bond with someone. He hasn't.

Ugh. Is abandonment among his issues? It doesn't sound like he has any agency here.

But he does seem to like me (according to his mother), so I'm hoping I can get some ideas to make him feel less anxious because I assume this is probably mostly anxiety.

You can only do what you can do. You're one teacher, and in the end it's a school not a hospital. But if there's any way for him to know you've got his back, you respect him and believe in him as a person, you will listen to anything he wants to say, even if it's not about your class ... and if you mean it, and he believes you, it will matter.

It's hard. Mental health treatment is a patchwork mess in this country and adolescent males are notoriously hard to treat - even if he were willing, it would be hard to find someone who specializes in his issues. We found tons of art therapy and horse therapy for adolescent girls, gentle & patient. But it's all boot camp & behavior modification for boys.
posted by headnsouth at 4:52 AM on September 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Does he read? As in books or whatever?
posted by geek anachronism at 4:55 AM on September 11, 2013

I'm hoping I can get some ideas to make him feel less anxious because I assume this is probably mostly anxiety.

Not necessarily. It could be mostly the depression. Why bother? What's going to happen if I don't do this? Nothing, is it? If there are repercussions, they're ones he can handle (maybe, because they provide him with some stimulation/novelty?)

It is possible that he's bored, his depression makes him bored and his boredom makes him depressed, so it's a nasty feedback loop. Coupled with the fact that this would be a habit, so it's difficult to break. Resisting is probably a more interesting thing to do than complying, even if there's a reward. It gives him most of the control over the situation. If there's PTSD, control can be a big thing. There is probably no incentive for him to do work and graduate because what will he do after that? Trauma + depression = where's the hope?

I don't really know how much you personally can help him but what he more than likely needs is for a) stimulating conversation, b) someone to discuss with him the potentials for his life outside of school (giving him direction, something to aim for, aspire towards, and get excited about). His diet probably sucks and that would increase the lethargy. He is probably genuinely exhausted with life and cannot see the benefit of actually doing what you want him to do.

Be careful with the positive reinforcement because if he feels you're patronising him, he'll clam up. Maybe try treating him more like a peer. Obviously, within certain boundaries, but don't treat him like a kid who gets a prize for being such a good boy. Intelligent, stubborn people tend to highly dislike fakery.
posted by heyjude at 5:29 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

You've tried focusing on school and school work, he's not interested. He may WANT to stay in school until he's 22. He may not want to be out of school, and in the world and dealing with adult stuff.

Have you tried engaging him in other ways? Ask him to help you with tasks around the classroom. Don't frame it as punishment for not doing school work, just give him something else to do. Wipe down desks, sharpen pencils, alphabetize the books on the shelf. Ask him to draw you a poster for something.

Sometimes you have to connect first, then attack the other stuff later.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:35 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I was a special education teacher for several years at a residential school for teenage boys. The students were in school for no more than three hours a day. Every day they spent another 3 or more hours doing physical work that ranged from planting vegetables to fine woodworking. I believe that all that physical activity was therapeutic. Nobody of any age really really wants to sit at a desk for hours on end, especially not kids. Is there any way you can incorporate some physical stuff into your teaching? Like putting on plays, or building models of molecules, or whatever? Do you have a shop class? Art class? Can you give him some modeling clay to play with while he's at his desk? How about music?

Decorate the classroom? Build bookshelves? Sort the books?

Can you take the class for nature walks? Feel free to memail.
posted by mareli at 5:52 AM on September 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I had severe but non-suicidal depression in high school and struggled a lot, in addition to ADD which didn't help, so my issues were different but I guess similar. So what I'm going to suggest comes from where I was, not from any professional expertise or anything? But here's what I wish someone had done when I was a teenager.

Everyone, everyone harped on why I wasn't doing my schoolwork. I hated it, I hated to talk about it, I hated myself for how I felt, I hated basically the whole universe, but I especially hated people bringing up how Sequence Doesn't Do Her Homework and that kind of thing. Like... that was just the tip of the iceberg of my problems and it seemed like everybody was obsessed with it. And nobody ever died of not doing classwork, but people have died of depression, you know? I got that obviously it was the teacher's job to care about that stuff, but I didn't care, so there was no overlap in our goals.

What I wanted, really, was for someone to just ask how I was feeling. To ask what I wanted. To help me explore things to find something I was actually interested in. To help me find a way to come up with a picture of the future that was not just more of the same hell. A way where the answer was not 'do your homework'. Once I had more of a feel for that, in college? I did my classwork, it was totally easy. In high school, it was impossible and overwhelming because it was like: My picture of the future was a teacher nagging me about not paying attention in class. Forever.

I eventually got on an antidepressant that helped, which was one thing, but before that even had a prayer I really needed to get around to developing a picture of a future that I wanted to live in. Someone to engage me about the stuff I was interested in not just as a carrot/stick to enforce compliance, but to develop goals about what I wanted out of life. Like, nobody in the real world punishes you for not cleaning your apartment or gives you a cookie for doing it--you have to want it to be clean. I think schoolwork is the same.
posted by Sequence at 6:09 AM on September 11, 2013 [26 favorites]

I am not an expert/very informed on any of this. So I am just throwing out thoughts.

I sometimes have VERY odd reactions to medications. Like, the 1% chance each of X, Y and, Z, I get all three. So I will be vacant and sleepy on non-drowsy allergy medications or fidgety and anxious about new things on anti-anxiety medication.

I think it pretty clear he won't/cant engage in a schoolwork capacity. Not at all sure 'here till youre 22' is at all a good threat. He seems to have a pretty good life there, where nobody makes him do much.

So, ignore the schoolwork. He isn't going to do it whatever the incentives, from what you say. Put a different Calvin & Hobbes book on his desk each morning. Or a gaming magazine. Or colored pencils and some paper. Or some comic books/manga/graphic novels. Then follow up with him what he liked/didnt like about it and give him more interesting stuff to do.
posted by Jacen at 6:25 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

If he loves video games, then let him play a game.
Another tactic may be to let him play the demo game that comes with FPS Creator, then delete the demo so that he has to make a game if he wants to play. If he does respond to this, eventually switch to a game creation program that requires programming, like Unity.
posted by Sophont at 6:29 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

"if you do ..., then you will graduate, but if you do nothing, you'll be here until you're 22,"

Is this true? Or will he be free to leave, regardless of his grades, the moment he turns 16 or 18 or whatever it is in your part of the world?
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 6:38 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

he clearly understands that no work equals staying until he's 22

You say that like it's a bad thing.

Were I a teenager who was traumatised, depressed, and selective mute, I would think staying in a safe, controlled environment like a therapeutic school for as long as humanly possible was absolutely the way to go. I mean, what does the world hold for him once he's out? That's a genuine question, but if you guys don't know then he doesn't know, and I wouldn't be in any great hurry to get out either.

Do his parents report anything that he likes? Pokemon cards? Video games? Comics? Anything at all?
posted by DarlingBri at 6:44 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't get the "until he's 22" bit. What would keep him from dropping out of school before then? How sure are you that his home situation isn't part of the problem? Does he interact at all with classmates outside of class?

Outward Bound programs have shown some success with this kind of kid.
posted by mareli at 6:55 AM on September 11, 2013

Has Pet Therapy been considered? Maybe a small animal that could be kept in your classroom, such as a dwarf rabbit.

IANAD, but I do know snuggling up to my cats, Smokey and Bentley, and hearing them purr makes me feel better.

Both were were adopted from shelters about 8 years apart as full grown adults, neutered and declawed.
posted by JujuB at 7:25 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Have you asked him what he's interested in? Video games? Music? Fluffy kittens? Maybe a project-based approach to learning would help keep him engaged.

I dealt with a kid like this back when I was a volunteer school librarian at a school for kids with special needs. He was highly intelligent and clearly creative, but he pretended very strongly not to be interested in any books in the library, and refused to participate in lessons or discussions. I only got him for half an hour one day a week, plus as a volunteer I did not have the power to determine his education plans, etc., so there was not THAT much I could do. But what I did do was focus my compassion on him and pay a lot of attention to his reactions to various requests, and within a few weeks I was able to figure out that a major problem for him was that he was DEEPLY EMBARRASSED at having had to leave his old school and come to the school for kids with special needs. It was very hard for him, as a highly intelligent, high-potential learner, to find himself put in the Problem Child Box; he felt that he had been permanently labeled as broken. It's not like he didn't KNOW that he was smart enough to be technically capable of regular or even advanced schoolwork. But all the adults in his life -- his parents, his teachers -- had been telling him and telling him that he "should" be doing better, and giving him dire warnings about the consequences of his inability to complete schoolwork, for years, and so he had given up on trying, because he did not want to fail again and be told again by adults how he was ruining his own life.

So I told him some (true) stories about how I had struggled at times in school and gotten into trouble, despite having excellent test scores, because of my own issues with depression and attention and problems at home. And I just kept saying positive things to him as much as possible, like, "I know you are capable of doing this work and I also know you are going to get around to proving it to me." I also discovered he was interested in papercrafts and so I ordered books especially for him -- pop-up books, books on paper cutting and origami -- to get him interested in reading again. And I surprised him a few times by setting aside time to make origami with him in class. After a few weeks of this, he did start participating regularly in class.
posted by BlueJae at 7:39 AM on September 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

OP, could you please clarify a few things?

- How old is this kid? Between the different school systems and the 'staying til he's 22' thing, I can't figure it out.

- Do you get any feedback from his therapists, etc, at all? Are you kept in any kind of loop, or is it all confidential?

- You say that he has 'selective mutism', so I'm assuming he speaks sometimes...has he ever said what he wants to do when he leaves school?
posted by Salamander at 7:49 AM on September 11, 2013

Response by poster: - How old is this kid? Between the different school systems and the 'staying til he's 22' thing, I can't figure it out.

- Do you get any feedback from his therapists, etc, at all? Are you kept in any kind of loop, or is it all confidential?

- You say that he has 'selective mutism', so I'm assuming he speaks sometimes...has he ever said what he wants to do when he leaves school?

He's almost 17. His parents are planning on legal guardianship when he turns 18...this will allow them to keep him in therapeutic school until he ages out of the system at 22. The only feedback teaching staff gets is a general overall sense of how he's doing in general or if he's in danger of hurting himself or others; they can't tell us anything else.

Selective means exactly that...he sometimes talks. He has never said what he wants to do when he leaves.

I've been working with him for only 4 days so far...I appreciate all the responses.
posted by kinetic at 8:51 AM on September 11, 2013

JujuB beat me to it, but my first thought was a therapy animal. I have seem some amazing interactions between dogs and traumatized kids. Might be the gate you are looking for.
posted by LaBellaStella at 9:04 AM on September 11, 2013

Selective mutism is an odd duck --- it can come on for so many reasons. My kid who had selective mutism at school for all of last year is only 4, so this is clearly not the same situation at all as for a 17 year old.

But I'm betting some (and only some) of the underlying reasons for the selective mutism would be the same.

1. Fear -- either of talking or something bad happening or not being understood (whether in the case of my son, quite literally because of his speech delay or in a more figurative sense of the meaning behind the words being said)

2. Control --- you know how we always say we can only control ourselves and our actions and not others or the actions of others? This is true, and it seems especially true for this kid you're working with. He has control over using his voice. No one can make him use his voice.

What worked for my four year old was one day my being in his classroom before too many other students arrived and at his teacher's suggestion, point blank saying, "See, it's not scary to talk at school!" while he was babbling up a storm. That switched something in his head because from then on, he talked in school every day.

Now, that may not work for a 17 year old in that way, but I do think that he has some control in this situation to speak or not to speak needs to be acknowledged -- it needs to be acknowledge so clearly that, yeah, he has that control --- he gets to decide when to talk and not. And then, if it's not happening already, alternative forms of communication need to be provided --- whether it's PEC cards or a personal device he can type on or even teaching him sign language. Just anything that says to him, "So, you don't have to talk, but could you tell us in this other way what's going on?"

The primary goal --- as it seems to me --- should just be getting him to communicate, however simply, before even attempting anything else. He's clearly communicative to some degree --- he understands what's going on -- and that is what may need to be capitalized on before progress can be seen elsewhere.

And I agree that the school really should be further encouraging the absolute need for non-school supports in this. Even if it is a therapeutic school, it's clearly not enough for this young man.
posted by zizzle at 9:31 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do they still have ODD diagnoses? If you've only been there for 4 days, I'd say he's sizing you up.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:48 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

The thing I keep wondering in reading this thread, is What does he like? (What are things he likes? When is he happiest? What does he look forward to?) What does he dislike? What motivates him? I know, he's not "motivated" in the traditional sense, but something motivates him to sit still and smile, or to put his head on the desk. Honestly, for many people his age, sitting still and impassive for hours on end would not be an easy task, but somewhere along the way he taught himself to do it, and is now very good at it.

I know it's really hard to get a grasp on that when he won't talk, do stuff, or generally react. If you asked him directly, do you think he would give you an answer? Would his parents be able to tell you?

His behavior is hard to understand, and we're all really speculating. Knowing a few things he likes would be a first step. The next question would be why he likes it. What is it about eating ice cream/ being outside/ listening to music that appeals to him? How much is it that that thing appeals to him, and how much is it that when he has/does that thing, he's able to avoid a particular other thing?

These would be small steps, but they'd give you a glimmer into how he sees the world and how he operates in it.
posted by pompelmo at 10:08 AM on September 11, 2013

Amazingly smart? Stubborn? Why would he want to leave a school where he can just chill out and sleep all day with nothing more than a little nagging here and there about it? He's developed wonderful coping mechanisms for asserting himself and his independence. I'd be really curious to know about the work he's being asked to complete. Is it intellectually stimulating, interesting, challenging? I agree that physically engaging work is likely to help. But why would he want to write a sentence about X--particularly if it will just be done for him if he chooses not to respond?

17 is a hard age. At 17, he probably looks at himself as an adult (even if legally, emotionally, and physiologically, he isn't quite, yet.) I don't think he's going to respond to stick and carrot tricks or nagging. I honestly think that if his teachers keep on this track--asking for compliance in classroom behaviors in which he probably sees no benefit--he'll probably be doing the same thing in this school right up until age 22. It might not be possible in your school, but were I in your position, I'd go for a walk with the kid and talk to him about it like I would another adult: "Look, you clearly don't want to do this stuff in school. You'd rather sleep or just do nothing. So what is it that you'd like to do rather than doing nothing? Want to build something or talk to someone who is in X career about doing an independent project? Want to read mystery novels or learn programming to design your own video games? Want to play basketball or dance? I'd be bored out of my mind in your situation. So let's change it."

Treating him like he's a kid, cajoling or bargaining to get him to perform tasks and behaviors that are well below his capabilities is the last thing that's going to help.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:09 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I just reread and saw the part about him loving video games. I always find this so interesting. I think for some kids the appeal of video games is that they're both engaging and do-able. The tasks you have to accomplish are within your capabilities, but they require some effort, dexterity, or cleverness. You get a sense of accomplishment that is often lacking in the other parts of your life.

I'd try to talk to him about the video games. What games does he like? Does he prefer games that he plays by himself, or those that have a social element? What skills is he using when he's playing? What about the game is he good at? In a way, what does he bring to the game, and what parts of himself does he develop when he's playing?

Perhaps you can find out his favorite game and try playing it yourself. Even doing this on your own, you'll gain some insight into what he's doing when he plays and what he's getting out of the experience. Also, it open the door for you to ask him about it. You can ask for his advice. You can tell him which parts you find difficult about the game. Maybe you can play a round with him.

It could give you a chance to bond with him, and it would also be interesting to turn the tables, and put him in the role of teacher and you in the role of student. And it would be a place where he gets to feel competent and capable. (If you're a really accomplished gamer yourself, then you don't get the table-turning thing, but it would be something you share and can bond over.) Also, it might give you some ideas for tasks you could do in class that use the skills he's good at from the game.

I don't know what your teaching load is like, and this amount of time on one kid may be beyond what you can manage. If you have the time, and the access to the playstation/x-box/whatever, it's an idea you could try.
posted by pompelmo at 10:19 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, also, looking at his behaviors in an operant conditioning sense: it sounds like this bright, stubborn kid is actually training his teachers. After inconsistently demonstrating positive changes and being praised for it, he knows that everyone really wants him to perform. He can easily lower the expectations for his behavior more and more by only responding to dead simple tasks (and rewarding his teachers with tiny shows of token behavioral improvement). I don't think he's doing this in a Machiavellian way, but smart teenagers are perfectly capable of realizing that adults want certain things out of them and that they can be in control of these situations by with holding these behaviors. I see two ways out: WAY tastier carrot than grades (why should he care?) or video games, or subverting the entire paradigm. Get him involved with changing his life in ways that are more significant; acknowledge the power he has over his own liberty and accept it.

This is probably why he responds well to your mild comments about not speaking shrug, by the way. He's probably had teachers accept that behavior in the past and even praise him for having any response. Not only are you not doing that, you're responding in good humor in a fairly adult way.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:28 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Basically, he has a history of trauma and he's been diagnosed with clinical depression.

With this as the starting point, I wonder why anybody is surprised he's not doing his schoolwork. What kind of trauma? Physical? Emotional? Has he been abused? Perhaps by the same parents so desperate to get him to do schoolwork?

...he is not on any medication that would cause this physically...

Says his psychiatrist.

If he's on psychotropic medications, there is always the possibility that they could be causing disruptive side-effects like lethargy, apathy, or daytime sleepiness, to say nothing of the kind of impaired concentration that makes doing schoolwork a living hell. So he needs a different psychiatrist. And since he isn't going to get one, you should operate under the very reasonable assumption that a big part of this disengagement has a biological cause, whether it's the depression itself or the medications being used to treat it, and accept that. At 17, I was sleepy all the time, too. Some of this is actually normal.

As I am fond of saying: he would, if he could. Reading this story, I get depressed. This school, this situation, sounds a little like jail. Ask yourself: would you want to be in his shoes?

His parents are planning on legal guardianship when he turns 18...

What, so they can perpetuate their pathological control impulse for as long as possible? My money is on him going through a significant metamorphosis the moment he's out of reach of his parents.

Even if this kid doesn't lift another finger until he's 22, he will still turn out fine. There are kids all over the world who never go to school and still manage to learn things and become functional, happy adults. In the West we seem to have the idea that the only path to a meaningful life is to regurgitate reams of state-sponsored curriculum during the years when we really should be playing, all so that we become economically useful as soon as possible.

Your job until he's out of there is to treat him like a human being with real autonomy. That means that if he wants to do nothing, he can do nothing. That is a choice every person has the right to make.

Treat him like a human being, and believe in him. Let nature take care of the rest.
posted by rhombus at 11:03 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

My first approach is always empathy. Can you imagine what it feels like where your most powerful choice is to do nothing? You basically are the one in charge. No one can do anything with you.

You're already feeling hopeless and that and that's the message he wants you to have. Your frustration is his communication. And he let you know this in a safe way--not risking expressing defiance or anger which will get him blamed.

What can you do about it? Let him win. Really. rhombus is on the right track above. Give up your plans for him. He'll know and thwart you. He'll only move out of this position when there's no one to thwart. Become that person.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:52 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I was teaching, there was a kid in the school who was like that. He was very bright. He had a bi-polar diagnosis and was medicated out the yin yang. About 90% of the time that you saw him, he had his head down on the desk. When he did work (which wasn't often), it was clear that he was an A student. The rest of the time, he put his head down and ignored the world or he tried to figured out how to manipulate other people, something that his bright mind was very good at doing.

Somehow he managed to turn out OK in the end.

The curious person in me wonders what would happen if you decided to completely change the mode of communication with him. For example, what would happen if you decided that you were no longer going to communicate with him verbally. What would happen if you left an note card on his desk with an indisputable fact (not opinion) about him. Put it face down and ignore him. Keep it up for a few days and then leave two cards, one blank and a pencil. See what happens.

Prepare four cards in two different colors. On two different colored cards write, "say please". On the other two, write the same fact. Hold them in a standard "pick a card" pose. Let him take one. Pocket the other. If he says please, give him the fact of the same color as the one you pocketed. If he says nothing, smile and walk away. This is a take on the old joke of "how do you keep a schmuck in suspense?......Tell you tomorrow."

The goal is to slowly, carefully build up an expectation and a dialog. It's more or less the Nurtured Heart approach which is to set up tasks that are so ridiculously easy that he can't but accidentally comply and ramp up.
posted by plinth at 1:07 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I once worked in a school like yours, and I've had students like this.

What worked for me with a student who came in with this sort of traumatic refusal to do anything is that I asked him what he'd like to do with his time in this place. The student I had was Cherokee, and he'd been (reportedly) mocked by a former teacher, told that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" which prompted him to throw a desk and end up in our school. What did he want to do? He wanted to learn Cherokee. Okay. So I started by allowing him to do what he wanted... Basically, he read books on Cherokee history and taught himself the Cherokee language. After he learned to trust me, he managed to get English credit for his work. I basically treated him like an Independent Study student, and he ended up doing great.

This wasn't a conversation we had in front of any other student, we talked privately. He kept his head on his desk the entire time. I just talked about how I couldn't make him do anything, and I didn't plan on making him do anything. I told him I knew he was smarter than the average bear, and I knew he would rather do something than nothing. So I asked him to think about how *he* wanted to spend his time. He could let me know in writing, in video chat... whatever way he was comfortable.

He could start by writing out his desires, his wants, his ideal class... Take any entry he gives you. Let him play video games. Let him create video games. Whatever you can do to get him doing *anything* at all.
posted by RedEmma at 5:10 PM on September 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

He likes it when you talk to him, when you smile. He's in school to learn. He's suffered some sort of trauma. Pavlov was right, rewards work. Make the rewards smaller and easier to get.
things to reward:staying awake for a full class, reading anything academic, talking about anything academic - the idea is to lower the stakes and reward smaller behaviors that are on the way to the larger behaviors. Reward can be a couple of M&Ms (tiny reese's cup, smarties), or even a sticker on his notebook, or a chance to listen to music, something small but tangible. There was a great experiment where the researchers gave the test subjects an M&M every time the subject blinked. The test subjects didn't know why they got rewarded, but their blink rate would go way up.

He's bright, and most bright people enjoy learning and don't enjoy boredom. Read to him. Good literature, history, Shakespeare, any quality reading matter. If you know any of his interests, try reading material that will engage him. Just tell him you want him to have some academic benefit from his time in school, so you're going to spend X time reading to him. Give him a choice of reading matter, and if he doesn't choose, choose for him.

If possible, he might need more 1:1 time.

Thanks for caring about this kid, sounds like he's in a bad way.
posted by theora55 at 6:47 PM on September 11, 2013

Could you learn sign language together? Maybe speaking without speaking would work better for him. And maybe if you were learning together he could take pride in helping YOU to learn.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:12 PM on September 11, 2013

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