Big brother big sistering sans frontieres
January 11, 2018 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Without giving a huge backstory, an eight year old kid who lost his parents recently has come into our lives and we have agreed with his grandmother to hang out with him in our house two or three nights a week for the foreseeable future. Now what?

Basically, this kid has already switched schools once and been held back once in the year and a half since his mom died and he really can't do third grade a third time, it is already what seems to be a social nightmare for him being the tallest and oldest but also very behind academically. She is thinking of sending him to boarding school where he will receive more hands on care (she works very late) but also lose all existing support structures. So we have agreed to his grandmother's request that we kind of big brother / sister him some weeknights to create a nice routine and safe space and hopefully help him graduate this spring.

His language skills are limited and he is understandably shell-shocked/traumatized/I can't even imagine. We are also kind of beat when we get home at 7 so something like "reading together", "playing math games", etc > trips around the city, that kind of thing-- at least for now.

We are not in the US-- this kid speaks my husband's language as a native language but at below a third grade level, and very limited English (which he is failing as a school subject). He is very sporty and spends most time skipping school to play football (the grandmother's words) so we are trying to sell the "stay in school!" track rather than the "toss a ball around" track (though my husband is teaching him to juggle).

So, ok, what do we do? What do shy 8 year olds with really limited verbal skills like to do-- or better yet, what might they like to do that will help this kid towards a better life? Mostly he stares glassy eyed at his math textbook after finishing his homework or even just smiles and sits quietly with his hands in his lap so we gotta do better providing a holistic and supportive experience here. Suggestions for books, toys, general advice? I am not a parent so I have no benchmarks for how to be there for an 8 year old, let alone one in this very sensitive situation.
posted by athirstforsalt to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would recommend starting out each evening by making a snack or some other type of food together. Something that involves a bit of prep or baking would be great. It lets you work together without being really in each other's faces, and lets him accomplish something (which is going to be important if the rest of the time you're working on stuff that's hard for him). I think that getting some food together, working on homework while it bakes, then taking a natural break when it's done to eat, and then wrapping up any remaining work or playing/juggling would be a nice routine at least to start with.
posted by christinetheslp at 6:55 AM on January 11, 2018 [21 favorites]

I do not have kids, but for a while I taught kids music at a centre for kids and families affected by HIV and AIDS. The ones I taught were in a group who knew about their status, some quite recently, and so many of them were dealing with a lot of hard stuff.

What I learned from doing that, was the importance of having ways to express themselves, in whatever way they could do so in the most authentic way for them. That way, they could channel some of the stuff they were going through into something creative, and important to them. For example, I saw one shy little kid just light up when we created a simple backing track together and he put down a simple rap on top of it.

So my thought is, maybe you could just try giving this kid access to lots of different opportunities to try things, in whatever capacity you can manage on your limited energy reserves.
posted by greenish at 6:57 AM on January 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

He should probably be in therapy. Is he in therapy? If not, can you facilitate that? He should also be getting some one-on-one language assessments and training/teaching. He needs professional help, not two well-meaning adults to hang with him a couple times a week.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:59 AM on January 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

To add: YES! this kid definitely should be in therapy / have better means of support than two clueless bleeding-hearts can provide. Trust that I am very aware of these issues / how problematic our position is but due to poverty / third world setting, this is what's happening.
posted by athirstforsalt at 7:05 AM on January 11, 2018 [6 favorites]

If grandmother can afford boarding school, then maybe a language tutor would be a helpful middle ground for now.
posted by xo at 7:06 AM on January 11, 2018 [7 favorites]

Professional help, of course, and perhaps you can help his grandmother research options. But assuming that you won't be the primary on this, and that the hanging-out arrangement:

1) I think it would be helpful for both of you if you had a routine. Something like "read a story, eat a snack, play a game, watch a short kid's show." Then you can change up the content of each slot, but the overall structure remains the same. Predictability is good for all kids, and probably even more so for this little guy.

2) If you can manage, read him a story in your language and a story in English each time he comes over. Perhaps your local librarian can help recommend books for you to check out.

3) good toys for this age might be playmobil (there are lots of themes; choose one he's interested in), since kids work a lot of stuff through their minds via pretend play; or legos, since it's cool to see that you can build stuff and it's a structured activity you can work on together. Also maybe interesting art supplies?

4) My similarly aged son is getting really into board games, which are a fun way to spend time together, and give you something to talk about. For now I'd choose ones that aren't heavily language based (but unsure what's available in your area, so I don't have good recommendations.) Even simple card games can be good - for example, my son enjoys Speed, which is very easy to play.
posted by telepanda at 7:13 AM on January 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't know what resources you have, but I homeschool my third-grader, and this is what we do: Read together, cook together, draw together, play cards, and play video games, chatting along the way. If you had access to kids' shows and movies in the language(s) he's learning (that have subtitles in his native language, maybe), you could watch them together. Or televised football games/video games about the sport in the right language - connecting to the things that he already knows and is interested in is very helpful for learning. Frankly, I would use "toss a ball around" as an access point to language, since he already likes it. The first word my son read was "play," and he got it from video games.
posted by xo at 7:14 AM on January 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think this is actually a situation where kids' TV/movies/video games can be big helpers. Especially, as xo says, if they have subtitles in his native language. First, they are fun and relaxing and kids love them. I'm inclined to lean in the direction of fun for a kid that is dealing with everything he is dealing with. Second, the subtitles encourage reading and, in my experience, has been a great way to learn a new language almost passively. It especially helps with comprehension, though not as much with expression, so I'd suggest asking him a few questions about the things you are watching or playing with him along the way. If DVDs and/or games from the US would be helpful, I'd be happy to send along a selection, just MeMail me.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:28 AM on January 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Try gardening with him. (You can do indoor container gardening if outside isn't an option.) When our neighbour kids were a similar age, they always wanted to come over and help us in the garden. Like baking, it's a low key activity where you are doing stuff but you can talk if you want. You can have a routine around the plant care and it's cool for kids to see the things they planted change and grow.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:34 AM on January 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think christinetheslp and greenish have got it, at least for the beginning while this is new for all of you and you are all trying to find your comfort zones.

A snack definitely but maybe also a light chore, like he can help chop a few vegetables while you prepare some other part of the snack, or you make pancakes or something. If he doesn't want to help with prep have him sit in the kitchen with you anyway, and put some playdoh or a fidget spinner or a small car within his reach, so he can have something in his hands while you guys talk. Maybe later you can put out some colored pencils and a small pad of paper.

We try to put on some classical music at night, or at least a relaxation channel, as opposed to putting the tv on for background noise. It relaxes everyone in the house, and is more conducive to conversation. Or not. Don't be afraid of quiet time sometimes, everyone needs to decompress at the end of the day.

Don't try to force conversation; you can ask about his day (who did you play with today, what games did you play, did your teacher tell any good stories?) but if he is monosyllabic you can just talk about your day. If you're doing meal prep you can "narrate" what you're doing (this is the number one advice for teaching language to babies for example - always narrate what you're doing rather than parking the kid somewhere and just doing things on your own).

Later you can model good reading behavior by maybe reading a light book together after the meal, or by reading in front of the kid and talking about what you're reading ("oh, it says here that..."). This is pretty much our routine every night and our kids love to read now. I don't think its necessarily the reading that they enjoy so much as they have associated reading with the good feelings of closeness and being together. It takes time but if you are consistent your little friend will come around.

This is a good thing you are doing for this boy, good on you.
posted by vignettist at 7:53 AM on January 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Sounds like some sort or routine would be good for both of you to start with.

So comes to your house. Make a snack/meal together ask about his day while preparing. Sit down & do some homework or at the very least sit & read a book together. Make it a chapter book, not a simple one, one that you read each time he comes to visit that you save special to read with him, show him how excited you are about it. Oh I'm glad it's the night you come tonight I'm dying to find out how character in book get's out of that situation we left him in. (Harry Potter has been translated into a bunch of languages & is about a kid who lost his parents & goes to school so maybe he can relate) Or maybe a trip to the library/bookseller to pick a book.

Then fun creative thing. Juggling is great. Even simple drawing. Maybe making a scrapbook if he has photos of his parents, or even a simple album could get him talking about them. Board games can be fun too as they can allow for talking & playing & teach counting/reading skills. Or simply go for a walk together as weather etc allows. Just chat & walk and listen to him.

Give him a safe routine, a place he knows that is there & isn't going to change. Be prepared that he might try pushing a few buttons early on to make sure that well, that you are in for the long haul & he can trust you not to go.
posted by wwax at 8:11 AM on January 11, 2018

Homework, snacks then read books about football or watch tv shows or movies about football (soccer I'm assuming) in the languages he needs to learn. Play to his interests, plus there are tons and tons of books aimed at small boys about football. Who is his favourite team? Favourite player? Ask him why and be willing to let him teach you and I bet he'll open up to you. Kids love teaching adults stuff. Maybe have one movie night a week and the other two you talk, eat and read. If there is a big match watch it together or record it for him. The kid deserves to have someone doing nice things for him to make him happy. If he ever isn't interested in soccer on movie night regular kids TV is how a lot of people learned English.

He has to do his homework first and clean up though. And make sure he has a place he knows he can fall asleep at yours, even if its the couch with a special pillow and blanket of his own. Kids get tired early in the evening. If you don't get home till 7 he will probably start to fade a couple hours after.
posted by fshgrl at 9:06 AM on January 11, 2018

If you want to do more research on your own, you might try searching around for resources on coping with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). There are some Resources for Family here from a toolkit, the Tips to Promote social-emotional health of young children from the American Academy of Pediatrics has some concrete tips. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network also has a great page of resources for caregivers.
posted by wsquared at 10:52 AM on January 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

If there are evening youth football teams get him in and get him training for competitive level play. To be serious about football is a great opportunity to learn a lot of the skills he's behind on. It's not at home stuff but you can sit and watch the practice!
posted by Mistress at 11:11 AM on January 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

What do you normally do of an evening? Keep doing that, but incorporate him and give him parts of the routine that he can take ownership over. It’s his job to measure out ingredients, or his job to set the table, etc. He gets to pick a book off the shelf that one of you read aloud to him. He has a seat at the table that is his seat, a shelf on a bookcase for his things that live in your house (maybe give him some small games along the lines of Uno, and have some drawing materials available for him).
posted by ocherdraco at 11:50 AM on January 11, 2018

I'm usually the one beating the limit-screen-time drum, but honestly, if he's tired and you're tired? Watching something together is fine, as long as the material is interesting enough to be more or less pleasant for both of you. It really can help with language pickup too. I'm sure if you give us some specifics on language someone will be able to recommend some Youtube.

If he's up for running around though, I agree with the above person who suggested some sort of organized football league. If he has skills let him develop them and shine that way. I have a young relative whose integration into school into a new country turned around 100% when the other boys figured out he was an amazing soccer player.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:11 PM on January 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

Can you give some kind of reward for school attendance? Stickers on a chart and maybe candy each day, maybe something extra for each week of perfect attendance, and a bigger reward after getting twenty or thirty stickers on the chart. Does he have his own football? Want to pick out a poster of a favorite footballer? What if a hundred or two hundred stickers was going to see a game? (Substitute drawings on a calendar or chart you hand-make if price is a concern.)

Also, is there any way to convince him to play football from when school gets out until he comes to you? That would give him a few hours, hopefully.

There are tutoring games you could play, but which ones partly depend on where his skill levels are. Feel free to memail with me if you want specific suggestions. Do you know the card game War? You can make it a math game by having each person try to say what the cards add up to (or multiply to) and whoever says it first wins the cards. I would consciously wait four to ten seconds so he has a chance to say some of them first, speeding up as he gets faster. If you can have him read to you as well as you read to him, that would help develop reading a lot. There are various games you could play here too, but those are probably more helpful if he needs to practice sight words or other specific vocabulary (not sure if that's relevant in the language he's learning in).
posted by Margalo Epps at 2:25 PM on January 11, 2018

Absolutely preparing food together. You can also, adjunct to that, look through cookbooks/cooking websites together and look for things to try making ... and he can work on reading parts of the recipes and measuring ingredients is math.

8-year-olds also like a lot of snuggling. I'd spend some time on the couch with him next to you and able to lean against you while you just read books or watch TV or whatever. Just to have the quiet solidity of a caring adult, day in and day out.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:50 PM on January 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

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