The School of Innocence – Working With Kids
Innocence. This is something we all think of when it comes to kids. They are so fresh to this world. They are learning and absorbing information in ways that I think we as adults lose touch with. Their curiosity is always high while they try to navigate life, whether it be from the days of infancy into adolescence (a whole other animal for later).
I think of my own youth and how quick I was trying to pick up new learnings to apply. I’m reminded of the times when I’d get in trouble for picking on my siblings or the times when I could play a simple game for hours. Each of those moments taught me a lot and in the former it meant figuring it out so I wouldn’t get in trouble again. Now, whether that meant I didn’t do the act again or simply figured out a way to get away with it is another story.
What do kids always get as they grow up? The benefit of the doubt and “Oh, they are just a kid.” That’s because they are viewed as innocent and perhaps at times don’t know anything. What I mean by anything, is that we are not always open to what they may teach us. Sometimes it is direct and sometimes it is indirect, but these young humans are loaded with lessons.
For the last four and a half years I have been working part-time as a residential treatment counselor at a residential treatment home and assisting kids during times when they are not at school. Their ages are in the range of 4 to 14 years old. Typically, I’ll manage a group of 2-6 kids depending where I am working at the home. We’ll do variety of activities consisting of playing outside, hiking in the woods, going to a movie, playing with legos, playing a board game, or participating in another off-campus outing, among many other things. We’ll also go through the morning and evening transitions that involve getting ready for the day or bed and easing into the day or calming down for the night.
This may not be the everyday experience that many encounter when it comes to working with kids since most of these kids come from very difficult situations of abuse or neglect but nonetheless they are still kids. At the end of the day, they often need a little more love. In many ways, there are extremes that have changed me and helped me learn for whatever my future may bring with my own family.
This experience has opened my eyes to what I have learned from the many kids I have encountered in this time, which is somewhere in the 100s. When I look back at it all and where I was when I started, it provides me with a confident appreciation for how these innocent souls have shaped me and allowed me to have an impact on them.
Honestly, when I started, perhaps I was the innocent one. I’ll admit those first few months on the job left me often thinking to myself, “Am I doing this right?” I quickly realized I had a lot of growth to do myself. It’s changed me in many ways. Most of all, I think it showed me how important those young years are for development and for the years of adulthood. My innocence was tested but it all taught me an immense amount. I even recently had a friend ask me about a situation he has had a struggle with involving his young son. When he asked me, I had to think to myself, “Wow, I remember where I was four years ago and would have a vaguest clue on how to give input and now here I am.” It was a moment I couldn’t appreciate more.
These little people have taught me so much. I’d like to share some of the lessons learned and the time working with kids has brought to my life. These are my findings.
This one could probably be listed as 1, 2, and 3 on this list. Patience is a huge part of dealing with kids. That issue I mentioned from a friend dealt with calming a kid down to get ready for bed. Believe me when I say that getting a unit of 20 kids to get ready to sleep can be quite challenging. It is the time of day when they are at the height of their emotions and, quite frankly, finally let those feelings out. How do you not lose your cool when they are restless and disturbing a roommate or constantly seeking attention?
How do you get through many situations with kids? It takes patience and with patience it takes a little learning along the way. Development is different for each one as well as their experiences. They learn at different rates. Some are different ages so it may mean taking a little more time with one compared to another. Patience is something I am reminded about constantly with kids. In those moments when my head wants to explode, I have to take a deep breath and get through it.
I can think of all the transitions I’ve been through, whether it be a kid cleaning up a huge pile of legos or one putting their shoes on while their peers are waiting. I know in today’s world I’ve become programmed to move quickly and the kids make me slow down because they take time and frequently need redirection. That is patience.
Taking that patience home and everywhere else has been helpful. By developing a higher level of it I can find more room for tolerance and grace with other people. Does it always translate? No, but it helps to take a step back and perhaps not react so quickly sometimes. That only benefits most situations. Besides, what are we always told growing up? Patience is a virtue.
Kids can find joy in the simplest of things. We get lost with the overload of everything as we get older and lose touch with those small things. Ever been told to appreciate the small things in life. Well, I appreciate these small people but they show me constantly how they can take something as simple as a stick and turn it into a magical world. It’s hard not to sit back and think how inspiring that is. I’m left wishing I could channel into that ability that seems to become lost or dormant for so many years. It’s very difficult now as an adult to not get lost in a phone or the intense stimulation around all the time. We’ve grown to accept more and more of that sensory information abundance with age and it further takes us away from our ability to simply take a deep breath and smell the roses and not only smell them, but just appreciate them for longer than a split second. It’s also why the vast amount of stimulus can be too much for a child.
I often will be playing a board game and my adult self gets bored very quickly or my attention span wanes. I can’t enjoy the simplicity of it very easily. It has taken a whole new discipline and challenge to find that child-like focus, sometimes re-tapping into an imagination I didn’t know was still there. The other thing it does is remind me to let life slow down and be in the moment a little more.
I’m not talking about the creativity involving play, although it does go hand-in-hand at times. It takes creativity to reach each kid. Some react differently. I’m always trying to find ways to keep kids engaged or on task and it takes trying many different strategies sometimes. There isn’t a handbook that will work for everyone. There are also many factors going on with each kid and that is not fluid. It changes daily and sometimes hourly. They may be an angel in the morning and by the evening some event has unfolded that has opened a whole new box in that kid’s mind.
Kids challenge you to unload all resources on the fly. Experience is a great teacher. I can say that in my 4.5 years at the home I have faced many situations that have provided me with experience but even then, it may not be enough. I’m constantly trying to be creative. I think this has blossomed into my personal life as well. I’m definitely not who I was 10 years ago or even 5 years ago. I’ve learned over time how to be better with my relationships with people. It may mean trying a different angle or perspective. I think the kids have taught me a lot about that and very quickly at times.
Who loves a good ol’ piece of humble pie? When it comes to kids, no matter what you think you know, leave it at the door. Every situation is different. Every kid is different. I can’t think of how many times I’ll try something with a kid to de-escalate or excite him/her and then try it with someone else and the results are completely opposite. What works for one may not work for another and I’m right back at square one trying something different. This fits right in with what was mentioned about creativity.
Kids have a way of amplifying things that as adults we are better at suppressing or have matured past. When they have an issue, they react quick and believe me when I say I’ve witnessed some 0-100 turnarounds. A kid may be perfectly fine and playing alone one minute and a peer says or does something to that kid and all of a sudden, they are blowing up. It’s in those prior moments you think you have it all under control and then next you are racing around trying to get the entire group under control. Kids are very good at feeding off each other.
There are other moments where an accident may happen in public or a kid is screaming at you at Walmart with tons of shoppers looking at you. These are the moments that bring you down from the clouds when everything is going well. A kid may call you a name or witness you have your own fall. Embarrassing. As some of you may know they are pretty good at not letting that go and reminding you over and over again in front of everyone.
Nothing seems to always go smooth and as planned. Being able to see these little pitfalls when working with the kids or the moments that have changed quickly has in many ways probably helped me endure more with my own slips or crashes in my life. Simply, it’s a get back up and go forward outlook that I’ve developed more. It’s also given me more confidence to take these situations head on. Above all else, it reminds me how little I know and how much I have to learn as well.
It takes a lot to tolerate kids sometimes. There always seems to be one that knows just how to push the buttons of irritation. In reality, they often know they are doing it too. However, it’s often their way of getting your attention and they may not know a healthy way to do that. Questions are raised. How much does one tolerate? Is it helpful for them to let things slide? Where is the limit?
Limits are something that I’ve come to find a lot of growth in during my time with the kids. If they aren’t established, they will walk all over you. The other thing is finding the consistency. One kid may push a limit all the time and another will pass it once. Does that kid deserve the same treatment? That scenario can be tough to justify. The one who passes it once may have more remorse or may have accidentally slipped.
Not only has tolerance and understanding limits taught me about discipline a bit more with the kids but it has helped me understand where my own tolerance is in life. When I have no tolerance for a kid bullying or a lack of compassion towards another it translates to what I strive to be like outside those walls of the home. Attunement is a word we use and the ability to recognize another’s emotional needs is an important part of tolerance because there is always something underlying that needs to be communicated.
The minute I throw flexibility out the window is the minute I open the door for chaos. While there is a place for tolerance and limits there is also a place for flexibility. Try planning something for a group of kids that are very different from one another. You can’t go play football with half of the group interested and the other half interested in playing house or play a high-level board game with an entire group ranging in ages of 4 to 12. It just isn’t going to work. Some kids are going to get impatient and frustrated. They will let you know quickly too.
The ability to adapt is crucial with kids. A kid might enjoy something one day and the next be completely over it. They may be in a different mood the next day as well. Identifying if there is something on their mind that is going to inhibit their enjoyment or ability to take on an activity takes flexibility. I’ve had times when I’ve wanted to take kids off-campus and it was on my agenda but then things were going well so that agenda has been scrapped.
Just like in life when something was planned and there was exciting build-up towards it, sometimes it doesn’t work out. This can be a letdown at times but adaptation and flexibility does wonders for making the best out of a poor situation. Personally, I don’t like the other option of wallowing or sitting in that disappointment.
This is a critical part of any relationship and when it comes to a kid, especially one from difficult circumstances, it can be hard to obtain. In order to gain trust with them it takes an ability to relate and for them to know you are there for them. Imagine trying to gain this when everyone they have trusted has left them. I can say I’ve learned how trust is incremental in building a relationship. Many of the kids I’ve worked with won’t just open up to anyone. They’ve been in the lowest moments of vulnerability and let’s be honest, who would want to go there again?
This is one of the most rewarding things to gain. When that child gives you there trust they have a profound way of showing you how important you are in their life. Recently, I ran into a young girl at the store who used to be at the home until a year or two ago. She spent a good chunk of her youth there. I remember when she invited me to her discharge party and how special that felt because I knew it took me gaining her trust to be one of the few to be invited. Now, she is with a family and doing very well. To know that a relationship with kid could have had a positive impact for their future is something you carry with you in memorable way.
Building trust takes time and it takes an effort in all relationships. For me, my time spent seeing how tough it can be for kids has opened my eyes to maybe why it is tough for us as adults. We all have different experiences and shapings in our lives. They remind me that I must foster trust and make it a priority to enhance my own relationships.
The single most important part. Love is not easy all the time when it comes to kids. Some have this incredible way of getting under your skin. Some leave you constantly reminded of qualities that are not admirable to you. However, if this ingredient is left out the whole recipe fails. It takes a lot of tolerance for some kids and others it’s naturally easy to accept them, even when they are being stinkers.
I can’t put into words how much my experience in the last few years has filled me with a new understanding of what love means. It’s elevated to new levels that has transferred to my relationships outside of working with kids. I have an understanding of what unconditional means as well as how to give it when it may be the hardest thing to do.
Adults need love but I can attest that kids need it the most. Their worlds are so vulnerable and shaping day-by-day and hour-by-hour. If it is absent it breaks connection for where they can go with their life or even their ability to know how to navigate life. Without it, everything is difficult. I’m constantly reminded how I need to be able to give it and at the same time what form that may be that is going to be the most helpful for them. That right there can be quite challenging.
You’ll see in my other works that this one is very important to me and to be able to learn more about love’s role with youth provides me with a lot of gratitude. It’s what we should all strive for and to see the love a kid can give despite prior circumstances or happenings is powerful beyond measure. They are resilient and continue to come back, only hoping we can return it. They want love just like we all do. It is the human connection.
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This school of innocence goes past working with kids in the capacity I’ve spent time in. It relates to all kids. Some of you may have your own and can relate. You may recognize some of these things I’ve learned more about and can add a wealth of knowledge and experience to. You may be able to add many more to this list, in which I would be curious to hear more about. Patience, simplicity, creativity, humility, tolerance, flexibility, trust, and love are only a few big ones on the surface of my own mind.
I look back on my innocence from where I have come from and it’s exciting to know where it has grown to and where it can go in the future. The school hasn’t been easy but it has been worth it. Many hours of investment that I hope is paying off with the many kids I have encountered and I know for a fact it has paid off for me.
I want to put a special shout-out to all my co-workers at the home over the years. Some of you have/are full-time and put many more hours in and I commend you. I also want to recognize the parents out there. Your investment is worth everything and more, even during the low points. Thank you all!