Understanding THAT Kid — the One Who Hits, Kicks, and Disrupts the Class

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It was a bit of a rough start for my daughter’s first-grade class this year. Besides the usual troubles — clinging to parents at dropoff, struggling to correct stubbornly backward “z’s” and “2’s,” and objecting to rules that stuffed-animal friends stay at home — there was a bit of a serious issue, too. Let’s call him “Timothy.”

Timothy is elfin and sweet — except when he’s not. And by that I mean when he’s kicking, pushing, tripping, poking, shoving, hitting, biting, punching, or spitting at other kids (and adults, for that matter).

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Timothy is THAT kid, to his perfectly nice-seeming parents’ chagrin — and to everyone else’s, too, as his unpredictable behavior was sapping much of the energy from the class, not to mention sending classmates home injured. Eventually, Timothy was moved to another class. We’re not sure what happened — and may not ever know, as I’ve realized even more now after reading the poignant, gone-viral blog post by Canadian educator, Amy Murray.

“Dear Parent,” writes Murray in her post for Miss Night’s Marbles, which ran in the Washington Post on Friday. “I know. You’re worried. Every day, your child comes home with a story about THAT kid. The one who is always hitting, shoving, pinching, scratching, maybe even biting other children. The one who always has to hold my hand in the hallway. The one who has a special spot at the carpet, and sometimes sits on a chair rather than the floor. The one who had to leave the block center because blocks are not for throwing…” 

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Murray, a 15-year education vet and the director of early childhood education at the private Calgary French & International School, goes on in her 1,200-word, chillingly spot-on post — about behind-the-scenes insights, and discretion for families who are trying their hardest, and empathy for all.

“Your child, this year, in this classroom, at this age, is not THAT child,” Murray writes. “Your child is not perfect, but she generally follows rules. He is able to share toys peaceably. She does not throw furniture. He raises his hand to speak…” But, she continues, “I know, you want to talk about THAT child. Because Tabitha’s backward B’s are not going to give your child a black eye. I want to talk about THAT child, too, but there are so many things I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you that she was adopted from an orphanage at 18 months. I can’t tell you that he is on an elimination diet for possible food allergies, and that he is therefore hungry ALL. THE. TIME. I can’t tell you that her parents are in the middle of a horrendous divorce, and she has been staying with her grandma… I can’t tell you that he has been a witness to domestic violence.”

Murray tells Yahoo Parenting she couldn’t have predicted the impact of her words when she sat down to write her post on Nov. 10. “Three days later it was at a million hits,” she says, noting that she’s at times been “overwhelmed” by the attention. “I’m so honored by some of the stories being shared,” she adds, explaining that feedback has been coming from three distinct camps: the parents of “THAT child,” who are grateful for her part in furthering understanding of their kid; the parents of the other children, from whom Murray has gotten some pushback (for “justifying” bullying, according to some); and from teachers, who have to deal with all sides.

“I know about the single mom, the divorce, the meds, the therapy… But my sweet quiet and petite daughter is hit, bit, punched, spit on etc by him every week,” writes one woman in the Post’s comments section. “She has changed, socially become afraid of other kids, and thinks that kids may hit her and that the teacher will just say ‘he’s special…’”

Notes another reader, “My 4 year old granddaughter is THAT child… But she also has a heroin-addicted mother who hasn’t seen her child in nearly a year and will probably be dead in the next couple of years… She has been exposed to people most commenters here would be afraid of.”

On Murray’s site, one of the near-800 comments reads, simply, “This is beautiful. A great reminder that we all have to have more compassion. Every child deserves to have their unique needs respected and met in school.”

It’s a sentiment with which Dr. Lillian Katz, professor emerita of elementary and early childhood education at the University of Illinois, agrees. When these situations arise in a classroom, she tells Yahoo Parenting, “a great deal will depend on what kinds of relationships the teacher already has with the parents. Does the teacher approach or respond to parents in ways that indicate her confidence in her ability to solve the problem at hand? If that is so, the teacher can very calmly say something like, ‘I understand your concern about this. Trust me, I am working with the child (and perhaps with local specialists or other resources) to make sure no one will be hurt,’ and this child’s problems will soon be solved.”

What Murray wants parents worried about the troublemaker to know is that, “Protecting his identity doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything to help the other children.” She says something she’s learned over the years when negotiating the difficulties is this: “A lot of it is making sure every parent gets heard. So the first step for me is to listen.” It probably wouldn’t hurt for parents of other children to do the same — it’s certainly helped me, for one, to hear the other side through Murray’s piece. 

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