Like many of my Kindergarten students, I’m concerned about Damian because he doesn’t have an adequate vocabulary or many expressive oral language skills. His articulation when speaking is also extremely poor; he’s missing a very large number of top teeth (as a result of years of excessive sugar in his diet.) I’ve noticed that when he can’t find or clearly say the words he needs to communicate, he resorts to hitting or kicking to get his points across. In fact, after just a week in school, we had to make alternate arrangements for him at lunch playtime so that his opportunities for getting into trouble would be fewer. Damian now goes to the Resource Room for supervised play time and currently spends only 10-15 minutes outdoors mingling freely with the rest of the school population. Just in the past week another concern came to my attention. Damian has become quite poorly behaved at lunch eating time.
I became aware of the problem when my teaching assistant told me that despite her admonishments, every single day Damian seems determined to make a huge mess of his sandwich. She described that first, he pulls it all apart. Then he takes each separate ingredient (bread, ham, cheese slice, lettuce) and drags it around his Kindergarten placemat creating big greasy smears. Sometimes, my assistant said, she can get him to eat little bits of cheese or maybe ham, but that’s it; most often he just plays with his food. When he gets tired of playing with it, he takes what is left and squeezes it tighter and tighter into a disgusting little ball, which he sneakily throws in the garbage when she’s not looking.
Especially bothered by the fact that whenever she speaks to him about it, Damian becomes extremely sullen and shoots her dirty looks, she said she’s given up trying to get him to eat. She asked if I could speak to him about his behavior and make him put the remains of his sandwich back into his lunch kit––instead of the garbage––so Debbie, his new foster mom will know that he isn’t eating properly and is wasting good food.
So the next day at lunchtime I watched––and saw that what she said was true. Damian did indeed systematically destroy a healthy and delicious looking sandwich, lovingly prepared for him by his foster mom. What confused me though was the look on his face. Despite the fact he didn’t see me watching and no one else was telling him to stop what he was doing, he didn’t seem to be playing. He actually seemed to be trying to accomplish something, growing increasingly more angry as time went on. Since it wasn’t apparent to me what he was doing, I decided just to ask him to tell me what was up. But talking to Damian is no easy feat. Sometimes he refuses to talk at all and sometimes he will try to speak but if the listener has trouble understanding he begins growling instead (literally!)
It took a bit of persistence, but gradually by asking quite a few questions and eventually deciphering his replies, I came to understand. Damian really hates mustard! In his own 5 year old way, he was doing the best he could to try and solve his problem; wiping his sandwich parts across his placemat in an effort to remove the hated yellow stuff so he could eat his lunch! Because I wasn’t emotionally involved at all, it was fairly easy to figure out what was really happening and deal with it. I explained that as a temporary solution we could use a knife to scrape the mustard off and then, after school we could really solve the problem. He could let Debbie, know that he didn’t like mustard. He could ask her to just use the mayonnaise.
What looked like misbehavior wasn’t that at all! And the sliver lining to this cloud is that this incident has really helped Damian move forward in other situations too. Now when we see him getting angry, we are able to remind him how the lunch problem was solved. Because the mustard experience ended successfully, he is far more willing to believe that talking can actually work for him––as long as he doesn’t give up and remains willing to keep the communication going.
Turns out that every night Debbie asks Damian if he wants mustard on his sandwich just like his older sister, Connie. Up until recently he always answered yes. Either he wanted to be just like his older sister––he adores her!––or he had no idea what “mustard” was!