October 1, 2022


Descriptive Review of a Broken Child: Raheem

Physical Presence and Gesture

Raheem is a 12-year old, (presumably) African-American student from upper Manhattan. As I was his substitute teacher, I knew very little about his family life. I had heard that he lives with his mother and father, the latter whom I believe is not his birth father. Raheem has occasionally mentioned staying with his grandmother. He also mentioned once in passing to a fellow student that he has a brother who “is dead.” I have very little conclusive information about his life outside of what I observe in school and have heard from other faculty, but I have reason to believe that he lives under tremendously difficult circumstances. 

Raheem has babyish physical features, with his face and body still possessing a characteristic roundness commonly associated with youth. He has braces on his awkwardly large teeth, and and he almost exclusively wears athletic clothing, from his headwear to his shoes. Raheem’s demeanor seems to perpetually and frenetically fluctuate between two extreme poles — of severe bellicosity on the one hand, and an innocent camaraderie on the other.

In a majority of occasions Raheem carries himself in a hostile and aggressive manner, apparently always ready to physically lash out, threaten, or intimidate. His belligerence betrays his short and boyish stature. Although he mostly looks upward at the various recipients of his pugnacity, this somehow does not diminish its intimidating effect. His voice is high-pitched and his typical speaking register is loud, shrill, raspy, and forced. His deep brown eyes have a piercing and direct quality through which his anger blasts like a fiery, well-honed weapon. He is capable of affecting a menacing smile that might disrupt any well-meaning adult’s sense of comfort.

With those whom Raheem considers to be his friends, he is capable of carrying himself in a much different way. He often displays hearty gestures of physical affection including, high-fives, one-armed hugs, handshakes, dancing and fist-bumps. He has an infectious and boisterous laugh that is more consistent with his childlike physical appearance. When he smiles and laughs, his face forms wrinkles and contortions which invariably evoke sympathy from all those around him. His sense of humor can be simultaneously innocent and sweet, yet also sharp, crude, and unforgiving. His jocularity portray a multitude of layers of underlying pain, confusion, and anguish, yet he also displays a desire to achieve moments of joy wherever he can.

Relationships with Children and Adults

With everyone around him, Raheem seems to keep his cards rather close to his chest. He has two best friends, both male and both (presumably) African-American, in his same grade. Several other students in his grade, all male and of mixed races and ethnicities, form his social group. These boys consistently convene at lunch and recess. Although Raheem maintains a regular group of “friends” (more accurately allies), he shows a proclivity to fighting and fraternizing indiscriminately with passers by in the hallway, ranging from students who are both older and  younger, to teachers male and female.

Despite his deep affection for his buddies within his chosen milieu, anyone in his immediate physical periphery is liable to fall into the crosshairs of his erratic ire. He shows little respect or concern for physical boundaries of others — hitting, pushing, threatening and slapping those around him at will,  friends and enemies alike. His joviality can often transform into uncontrollable rage within a matter of fractions of seconds. When interacting with female students, he expresses an intensified degree of fascination and curiosity, as well as repulsion and hostility.

There are a few other students in Raheem’s grade who seem to desire entry into his exclusive clique, yet their attempts usually end with them becoming victims of his bullying behavior. He enforces upon on the members of his “pack” to maintain a rigid understanding of who is on the “ins” and who is on the “outs” of his ad hoc social organization. Often times, his closer “friends” comply with his wishes, while other times they do not, leading him to explosive episodes.

With adults and figures of authority, Raheem displays an extraordinary outward indifference to and lack of concern for approval.  Regularly and shamelessly, he curses, threatens, and uses racial/discriminatory epithets. He explicitly discusses themes which of are a highly inappropriate nature for a school, without regard for potential consequences. If he disagrees with a particular request of an adult, he will either blatantly ignore it, sharply refuse it, or in extreme cases, lash out. Very infrequently and on an inconsistent basis, he will sheepishly acknowledge submission to an adult’s directives, usually followed closely by his more common responses of the former character.

Activities and Interests

There are rare and special occasions where Raheem displays a profound sweetness and sensitivity to his social environment. He has a deep interest in people, often probing his teachers about their personal lives, families and interests, and sharing his own experiences with a precocious cogency. He appears to be aware of the powerful effect that his emotional tenderness can have on adults, and he often, although guardedly, uses it to manipulate situations in his favor. Notwithstanding, there is a degree of consistency in his mannerisms with particular teachers and staff that evince his firmly-rooted, yet highly refracted and distorted desire to maintain nurturing relationships with caring adults. This is more acutely observable when he is in smaller classes, and when he has the less divided attention of a teacher or staff member.

Raheem is not shy about articulating his interests and proclivities to those around him. He loves to play basketball and possesses significant technical ability at it. He is on the school’s team, and although his coaches recognize his talents, they acknowledge that his disregard for instruction makes him “un-coachable.” That is to say that he is not a team player, and he displays more interest in bolstering his own individual achievements than he does working together with other players. He is competitive to a debilitating degree, and daily ball games with his two best friends at recess often conclude with physical brawls. At the beginning of every recess period, he urges other members of his social circle, teachers, as well as school staff to participate in games as well. Wherever he can get away with it, he interprets the rules to his advantage, and shows little concern for fairness or good sportsmanship.

Raheem has a naïve fascination with weapons, violence, gang activity, drugs, and money. Using online media platforms, he listens to “drill” rap music, which is associated with with the former themes, and he often tries to emulate the rhythmic spoken and dance style of some of the proponents of the genre. Despite the disapproval of all of adults in his school life with his interest in such subject matter, he regularly attempts to showcase what he fantasizes to be his intimate knowledge of these urban societal issues. As youthfully misplaced as his preoccupations are, it is unfortunately not unbelievable that he actually may have some close and realistic experience with these ills.

Formal Learning

Academically, Raheem’s extreme behavior issues largely prevent him from participating in any school activity in a meaningful way. This being said, he is an incredibly intelligent student with high aptitude and a brute-force tenacity for any tasks to which he sets his mind to accomplishing. His attitude toward approaching new challenges is generally intuitive and speculative rather than disciplined and meticulous, which often leads him to difficulty. On the other hand, his obvious intellectual and social strengths, combined with his competitive nature, sometimes find him rapidly successful in tasks which might befuddle others.

Since he strongly resists accepting help in his learning process, it is difficult to gauge his particular learning style. It is clear that his extremely high degree of social intelligence factors into how he assimilates new skills and information. He seems to learn by observing and imitating the relationships between other people in his life, eventually figuring out for himself how to gain competence in a given area. He is highly sensitive to failure or setback and becomes upset with himself when he encounters even small difficulties.

Raheem seems to have an affinity for deal-making, bargaining and negotiation, especially with adults, and this also factors into his learning process. Often his behavior can be managed most easily by presenting him with a “trade,” as he refuses to respond to instruction or direction. When he feels as though he’s getting a fair “deal” and has set his mind to accomplish a particular academic task, one can find glimpses new strengths which he seems to have accessed in the interest of attaining his ends. In general, Raheem possesses many gifts, many of which appear to be buried underneath a varied complex of emotional brokenness.

Amelia – Description of a Child

Amelia is nine years old. She is frequently late to arrive in the mornings, sometimes by more than an hour, and typically without explanation. Amelia has three sisters of different ages (11, 7, and 6 years old at the time of this writing), and all of these children typically arrive at school together. Amelia’s clothes and hair are always neat and clean. Her waist-length hair is always brushed and pulled back into a ponytail or braid. 

Most days, Amelia is smiling and joyful. She is well-liked by her peers, particularly the female students. Amelia finishes her work quickly and will often sit and read quietly by herself when she is finished. Amelia also enjoys reading during lunch and recess, frequently preferring to sit alone to read rather than to play games with other students. About once per week, Amelia will produce a self-written story or play that she wishes to share or present to the other students. 

Amelia is impatient, though not unkind, with other students who need more time to work or who require more explanation before beginning a project. Amelia prefers to jump in to a project as soon as she feels she understands the assignment, though occasionally she will miss important instructions. Amelia holds herself to a high degree of performance, and is curious and excited about most subjects.

When presented with feedback or criticism in any form from adults or peers, Amelia rejects the information and becomes angry. When I told her that she needed to speak more slowly when presenting her ideas in class, she became irate, screamed at me that I was wrong, and sat down with her arms crossed, tears welling up in her eyes. She was angry with me for the rest of the day, and yelled “I don’t like you!” at me nearly two hours after the initial outburst. The following day, she greeted me with a fun fact she had read about Abraham Lincoln, and was cheerful, but she still refused to adjust her speaking pace until her father told her that she spoke too quickly when presenting, nearly two weeks later. I was told by other teachers that, despite Amelia’s outbursts, she is gaining more skills at self-regulation than in previous years.

Amelia’s writing is clear, precise, and largely free from errors – well above the typical expectations for a fourth grade student. Amelia enjoys reading and stories, and typically brings four or five books of her own selection to school with her to read when she has completed her work, or during breaks. She loves books of poetry, U.S. History, and fantasy novels the most, but also enjoys books comprised of surprising facts. “Did you know…?” is one of her favorite conversation starters, and she always has an interesting bit of knowledge to share. Amelia’s curiosity and imagination manifest in her writing narratives and plays, and she enjoys performing her written works with her peers.

Hiding Out In Kindergarten: Edwin

Edwin is a child in my kindergarten class who comes into class each morning and picks a chapter book from the book crate. He is quiet and well-behaved and seems to be on task.  When I conduct a reading assessment, I realize that, while he knows his letters and sounds, he has very limited word recognition.  He does not seem to know how to blend sounds into words.  In addition, he has few sight words. Why was he pretend-reading chapter books?

I assign children to reading groups.  Edwin is with other emergent readers.  He seems very uncomfortable when he is asked to read a sentence in a predictable or decodable text.  In fact, he often seems to be unfocused. However, when he speaks to me one-on-one, he has a really sophisticated command of the language and an extensive knowledge base.  The rest of the emergent readers in his group do not have his oral language capability or his fund of knowledge. They lack his sophistication. However, they are learning to read the words in their predictable texts.  They are making way better progress than he is.

By December, Edwin is absent at least one or two days per week.  He seems less and less engaged.  He stares into space when he is in school.  He never makes trouble.  He just zones out.

Should I refer him to the intervention assistance team? There is a huge discrepancy between his oral skills and his reading ability.

Description of a Child

Nahla is a 10th-grade student at a transfer high school in NYC. She recently transferred from a selective middle/high school where she had missed more than 100 days of school. Parents and teachers report a high level of school anxiety despite strong grades and test scores in elementary school and strong contributions when present in school.

Focusing questions:

How can we help her to develop confidence and to attain necessary skills and work habits that would allow her to engage at the high intellectual level she is capable of?

How can we help her focus her passion for social justice in ways that help her more constructively engage her peers and engage sincerely and patiently with alternate viewpoints?

Physical Presence and Gesture

Nahla tends to be very quiet and seems determined to take up as little physical space as possible wherever she goes. She rarely smiles and has a serious expression most of the time. Sometimes she can seem deeply concentrated on her work or what’s going on in class, while other times her attention seems to drift away. At these times, she can droop in her chair and might be looking out the window. However, when classes are discussion-centered and her interest is stimulated, she can speak in an animated and decisive tone in the discussion. When she does speak, it is usually because she feels strongly and she will be quite firm in her statements. Her physical presence and affect in these moments is a marked contrast to her usual posture, which is one that appears shy.

Relationships with Children and Adults

Nahla is extremely well-behaved and polite with adults, but she can be difficult to draw out. Her main infractions revolve around lateness or absences and she can become quite distressed and avoidant when it is raised with her. She has a strong desire to please adults and is upset when she feels that she is not doing so. She is unlikely to seek out help on her own, but will often respond warmly to offers of help.

She sticks to a very close peer group of about three friends. She seems to have thriving and close relationships with those friends and they appear to be a valuable source of support. She is generally liked by other students, but does not form close relationships with them. She is quick to offer support or praise to classmates. However, she is equally quick to offer sharp disagreements and sometimes students feel that they are being judged by her.

Activities and Interests

Since arriving at the school, Nahla has taken up an interest in darkroom photography. She has registered for two classes and she spends a lot of time during breaks and after school in the darkroom. She is also interested in social justice issues and frequently participates in protests. She is often sharing information about social issues in class. She has also expressed an interest in filmmaking and served as the director for the film for one of the school’s mini-units. She is a strong writer, but expresses a lot of anxiety about writing and will often hand in assignments late due to writer’s block.

Formal Learning

Nahla has extremely strong verbal and written skills with an impressive vocabulary for her age. She reads widely and ambitiously. She thinks critically and likes to engage in intellectual debate. However, she can have difficulty seeing a problem from multiple perspectives or acknowledging the merit of opposing viewpoints. She struggles to extend her writing despite strong ideas. English and Social Studies classes are her favorites and she does very well in them. After some initial difficulty in Math, she is doing well now that she has added a Math lab. She works diligently and enjoys working on proofs. Science remains her weakest subject and she often struggles with lab procedures. She has difficulty following complex instructions and often becomes confused at directions, particularly when orally delivered. She was recently diagnosed with ADHD and her difficulties with executive functioning tasks and processing speed are apparent. These challenges can make it harder for her to engage in the high level intellectual tasks she gravitates towards and this can be frustrating for her.

Credit for the Featured Image: MedicalNewsToday