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*Author’s note: names changed to protect confidentiality.
Clouds shift and break apart in the sky, forming different shapes.
Some look like Pekingese dogs, others like DNA strands. I glance up at them while I pull over in front of the elementary school waiting for Riley.
Thirty seconds later, I spot a woman in her mid-30s, walking briskly across the playground toward my car. Dark hair tied back into a low bun, she wears a grey blazer and black work pants. When we make eye contact, she waves.
Soon after she gets in, I learn that Riley works with kids who have learning disabilities, attentional difficulties, and impulse-control problems.
“Today was particularly challenging,” she reveals to me as she sets her hefty, purple bag, which seems to be filled to the brim with books, down onto the middle seat.
On our way to her house in Pacific Grove, a town next to Monterey with a population of 16,000, we get to talking about the challenges that children with divergent needs and “difficult” temperaments face within the standard education system.
Riley feels there needs to be a wider pool of behavioral therapists at her school—and schools in general—to cover what she sees as increasing need. “Many kids beyond the ones we’ve deemed hyperactive or ‘problem’ are struggling and could use more help than they’re getting,” she says.
She laments the frequency with which children’s issues are written off as attitude and behavioral problems, with seemingly little investigation into the unmet needs those problems may be a symptom of.
“Not that behavior isn’t a piece of the puzzle—just that there’s a lot more to the overall picture than only that,” she expresses.
Seeking to correct negative behavior through punishment and discipline alone fails to address the unmet needs, Riley believes. The punitive measures on their own often don’t provide the kid a compelling reason to change. At best, they temporarily modify the behavior without instilling the deeper understanding and empathy that she thinks are necessary for more enduring change.
She cites, as one example, an introverted boy she once worked with, whose reticent, and at times, dissociative behavior are due to unmet needs.
The fact that he didn’t act out, nor was he ever disciplined or sent to the principal’s office, didn’t mean that he wasn’t still struggling (albeit quietly).
“He was an exception. Boys’ emotional issues and learning difficulties are usually likelier to manifest in their behavior, while girls tend to internalize them,” Riley says.
We talk about this as we approach her destination in Pacific Grove, flanked by New England style cottages to our left and waves crashing against jagged rocks, jutting out from the coast to our right.
She rolls down her window (it’s gotten a bit stuffy) to the sounds of the ocean, seagulls cawing, and kids chanting in the distance from what I guess to be a nearby a soccer field. The breeze carries a marine smell into the car, along with the faint scent of barbecued meat.
Here’s what Riley proposes: shift at least some of the energy from trying to fit these square peg young people into round hole expectations, to encouraging the cultivation of their strengths.
“It’s less about instilling false hopes in them,” she emphasizes—”Ideally, the validation would be rooted in some degree of the reality of their true strengths and limitations”—than about helping them recognize outlets for their unique abilities. There’s a place for their contributions, she wants them to know—even if it’s not in the mainstream, and even if finding it takes some time.
“Ideally we’d focus just a little less on conforming kids to the system and a little more on encouraging them to work with what they have, so that years down the road, it’s easier for them to find a profession or area of study that calls for and draws from those skills.”
We drive past a coffee shop bookstore hybrid on the main drag of downtown Pacific Grove, then past a taqueria next to banks inside Victorians, from the roofs of which seagulls caw to one another.
Though she acknowledges the loftiness of this vision as well as the socioeconomic hurdles that stand in the way of achieving it for all kids, Riley is hopeful that one day it will become at least somewhat more commonplace.