Sunday, March 13, 2011

What Do You Do When Your Teen Won't Stop Using Anger and Violence in a Reasonable Amount of Time?

A parent has written to ask, "What else is there to be done if a person doesn't want to stop being violent?" This can best be illustrated with another story.

A few years ago, a young lady (I'll call her Ruby), had a drug issue and one day she came to school under the influence of some drug or other that she had taken the night before. She normally had a good relationship with me. She was in her 1st Period English class and I called her to the Choices room because she had blown up in an aggressive way the day before and had been referred for a mediation with a teaching assistant.

When she came into the choices room, I said, "Welcome, Ruby! How are you today?" She answered calmly, rationally, in a friendly way, until I said, "You've been invited to a mediation with Ms. ___ . Are you ready for that today?" At that point, she began to resist, vociferously! "I will NOT EVER mediate with her!!! She deserved the anger I threw at her!!!! She had an attitude toward me and I'm never ever going to apologize or straighten it out. I'm going to talk to her as mean as I want every time I see her from now on. I HATE her! I HATE her!" It was like she had turned on a stream of anger and hate and she had jumped right into the middle of it. She was suddenly unwilling to listen to me at all. She would not calm herself down.

After a few minutes of watching her revving herself up and piling fuel on her anger fire, I told her that if she couldn't calm herself down in a few minutes, I was going to need to have her go home and return tomorrow with a parent so we could make a plan together. At this, Ruby decided to interpret me as attacking her, no matter how calm I was. She stood up and said, "I'm going back to my English class now!" I said, "I'm sorry, Ruby, but you're too upset to go to your English class. I'm going to need you to stay up here until you're able to talk calmly to me."

In her more rational moments, she would definitely have listened to me and begun to calm down. But my best guess is that under the influence of the drug, she was finding it challenging to tone down the emotion. She raced out of the office and down the hallway and we had to have teachers lock their rooms as she ranted and raved. I ended up calling the police to remove her for disorderly conduct, but she left on her own accord before they could arrive.

Two days later, she returned to school and did a remarkable mediation with me, taking full ownership of her behavior and planning with me various ways to help herself learn to calm down. She told me, "I have been wrecking my entire life with this level of anger and you are the calmest person I know. Even you had to resort to calling the police to deal with me. I REALLY don't want the police in my life. I'm afraid of myself sometimes. I'm afraid my own mother and siblings are going to throw me out if I put out this much anger. It scares them, too. My boyfriend has threatened to leave me if I show this kind of anger around him again."

So, after we had mended the relationship and after she had reassured me she was ready to return to classes, we planned out some things she could do if she felt extraordinary anger again (such as say, "Please don't talk to me right now. I need to go calm myself down somewhere alone and dark." or "I would like to have the HeartMath machine to practice calming myself down. I'll come back to talk to you when I've gotten the lights to go all green."). I agreed to remind her of those options and to get out of her way to allow her to put them into practice. She agreed not to take the anger out into the school, so that I would feel inclined to call the police.

We never had a single other problem over the next 8 months before her graduation. I believe that she did frighten herself at how far she was willing to encourage her anger, even given someone urging her to calm down, someone she trusted. And once she was able to make a plan, she realized that the anger wasn't "having her," but that she was choosing it and that she didn't really WANT to choose it at school again, so she didn't. Once or twice, she asked to use the HeartMath machine, but other than that, she remained more or less a model student through graduation, even including a very stressful last week of school in which she was racing to complete several challenging projects to at least a B level, in time to walk across the stage. She ended up working late into the night just before graduation, and stayed calm throughout (and very proud of her efforts, too).

I believe that our relationship was maintained because I remained calm in the face of her hurricane. She was able to best her own furious anger because she wanted to rise to the challenge my calmness placed before her. She wanted to be proud of herself and I think she wanted me to be proud of her efforts, too. If I had given in to my own inclinations of yelling back when attacked, I believe that it would have seriously damaged our relationship. I would have shown myself to be untrustworthy in an important way, someone she couldn't show this anger to safely. Still, that didn't mean that she wanted to continue to show the anger. It seems that once was enough for her to learn that it was really not a monster inside of her that she couldn't control. She wasn't a victim of the anger, but was choosing it herself and could choose not to indulge in it, as well, which felt much better. This is a life lesson and I felt honored to be there to watch it taking place.

Charlotte Wellen

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Walter's Struggles and Accomplishments (student names and some events changed to protect identities)

Walter went to elementary and middle school in a large northern city, where he lived with his mother, a professional woman.  Walter's father was not in the picture and Walter's mother was very upset that her son was getting into trouble.  In middle school, he was found with a bunch of boys who were playing with a gun on school property after school.  Also, he was failing middle school.  He was several grade levels behind in his reading and he only laughed when his mother urged him to improve his reading abilities.  He told her he didn't have time to read books because he was doing important things with his friends.  She felt she was losing him and when he was about to enter 9th grade, she sent him to live with relatives in Charlottesville.

After one year in the local public school system, where his grades were a bit better, but still very low, his Charlottesville family heard of Murray High School and sent him to take a look at it.  He decided to join our school community.

Murray is a wonderful place for a troubled human being because everywhere you turn at Murray people are smiling, welcoming you, and urging you to discover your potential.  However, that also makes Murray a place that is a bit stressful because it is close to impossible to slip through the cracks, which means that teachers are always paying attention to how you are doing and offering opportunities to progress and to grow.  For someone who has developed the ability to hang out and not accomplish, to resist and pretend apathy, this attention is disconcerting and even unnerving.  

Walter did his best to ignore the efforts of the teachers and to reestablish himself as a class clown and a "cool dude," someone who disdained school and graduation.   He often laughed when teachers asked him if he wanted to graduate from high school and said that his grandmother and mother expected it, but that he could care less.  

He soon made friends at Murray because many students appreciated a young man like Walter who enjoyed a joke, could play basketball like a professional, and who was ready for any risk-taking behaviors that looked like fun.  He spent his days avoiding work if possible, and continuing his old behaviors of turning in only mediocre work.  Soon, he was substantially behind in all of his classes and his name began to be a common topic of discussion at our weekly student-support staff meetings.  We held meetings with Walter and his grandmother, which we call SAT meetings (student assistance team)in which all his teachers gathered and asked him what he needed from us to help him succeed, but he had trouble instituting any of the plans that were made.  He was too happy spending his time on video games, basketball tournaments, and laughing with friends.

We realized that if he was to going to graduate, he was going to need some true intervention to get his attention.  I had Walter in one of my classes, English Through Video Yearbook, in which students learn their English skills by working on a product valued by the entire Murray community.  The class is very demanding.  Students learn how to use professional video editing software, like Final Cut Pro, Motion, and Photoshop, as well as how to use digital video cameras, to interview subjects, to plan out and produce short videos, from the ground up, even to go out into the community to generate video commercials, which they then shoot on their own, working with local business people.

As well as these practical projects, the class involves working hard to improve their English skills, with essays based on novels they read and discuss in class book talks.  They are also required to complete other creative activities designed to help students, who may have taken English out of their Quality Worlds,* relax and begin to excel, catching up on the skills they are missing from their past educations and pushing toward the skills they will need to do well in any college in the world.  Clearly, English Through Video Yearbook students are busy!

Murray High School became the world's first Glasser Quality Public High School in Oct. 2001 and we base our success primarily on the ideas of Dr. Glasser:  Choice Theory, Reality Therapy, and Lead Management.  Students, teachers, and parents work together to learn these concepts and to apply them to our everyday lives at school, at home, and even in outside jobs.  Of these ideas, one of the most powerful is the concept of the Quality Product.

Dr. Glasser postulates that one of the problems with traditional schooling is that, except for after school activities, teachers have lost sight of the importance of urging students to find projects to do that excite their hearts and minds.  Too often in the large public schools, students are simply moved through the curriculum toward standardized tests.  Even the best students are sometimes only going through the motions in order to achieve the goal of college far down the road. 

Dr. Glasser has spoken at many schools across the country and he usually asks the staff of those schools to gather together a group of their ten best students, those already accepted to Ivy League schools, to climb up on stage with him to be interviewed about their educations.  Dr. Glasser asks the students if they like school.  Most say that it's okay, not great.  Then he asks if there is any part of school that they really love.  Just about 100% say they love their after school activities, such as the school newspaper, the play, the yearbook, sports teams, band, or many other possible projects.  Their faces gleam as they tell of their accomplishments in these fields.  

Then, Dr. Glasser says, so how about in your academic classes?  What have you accomplished there that you would say is Quality Work, work that you love to do, that you give up free time to keep working on for the excitement of it, work that you know is important to yourself and to others, work that is relevant to your life and that challenges your hearts and minds? 

There is always a long, uncomfortable silence as students think.  Often, I have seen faculties sitting in the audience become frustrated at the silence.  Once a teacher I observed raised her hand and said to one of her students, "John, what about that essay you wrote about Hamlet?"  He said, "Well, I did the essay.  I got an A on it, so I'm glad I did it well, but I didn't really care about it.  I didn't get all excited about it and take it around to show everyone.  I don't think my friends would care all that much to read about Hamlet, but they really loved the yearbook last year and I was really proud of that.  I did the essay because I had to to get the grade and get into college."

At Murray, classes are designed around projects that teachers hope will attract students to do quality work.  It was my belief that Walter really needed an opportunity to accomplish some quality work that was attached to school and academics, and not just to basketball and playing with friends.  So, I managed to convince him that signing up for English Through Video Yearbook would be a good idea.

At first, Walter balked at all the requirements for the class and almost dropped it.  However, he and I had worked together for a year already and we had a very good relationship, so he decided to trust me and to stick with the class.  Once he had climbed the steep learning curve required to master the video editing software, and once he had his hands on the cameras and had the freedom to go out into the world and videotape his own projects, Walter was hooked.

It was a pleasure to watch Walter so involved.  He conceived of the idea of doing a segment of the yearbook on the basketball tournaments he had organized.  One section of the segment would show a morphing of several games, in slow motion, matching the actual bouncing of the balls to the rhythm of a piece of music he composed on Garageband.  Walter literally spent dozens of hours on this section of his segment.  He concentrated for hours at a time, never moving from his seat, determined to get just the right effect.  He watched it over and over, looking for errors and then taking the time to fix every one.  He worked many hours after school and into the evenings, bringing his grandmother in to the editing lab to see the latest version of his video.  

When his segment was complete, he was so proud of it.  He asked if he could show it off in a community  meeting,** so other students could get excited about purchasing a copy of the video yearbook and he helped to organize the showing.  At that point, you would imagine that Walter was going to earn an A in the English Through Video Yearbook class.  However, his old habits were dying hard.  Walter successfully avoided turning in the work on the novels for the class.  In fact, he hadn't read the novels.  He hadn't even done one draft of the papers required to earn credit, so Walter earned an Incomplete, which then turned into a NCY (No Credit Yet***) for the class.  Still, he loved the class and loved the final product, as did the rest of the school.

Although the staff was not happy that Walter had chosen not to earn credit for the class, we all acknowledged that his decision to throw himself into the Video Yearbook project had had a profound effect on his behavior choices around the school.  He had decided that he loved the school and was loyal to it and to the teachers.  He no longer wanted the teachers to be disappointed in him.  He began to pay more attention in classes.  He began to listen to the Choices Teacher's questions when he was sent to Choices**** for behavior issues and to participate wholeheartedly in creating plans for his success.  He began to talk about graduation as if it was his idea and not something being forced upon him.

At the beginning of his senior year, I was able to convince him to begin to meet with me regularly after school, privately, to work on his reading and writing skills.  It had taken us two years of working together to get to that table in my empty classroom after school that first meeting we had together.  There were many transformations that had needed to happen before Walter was ready to bring himself there, and to willingly WANT to learn to read and write.  Still, he brought many of his resistance behaviors and especially his fears of failure with him, as well.

Walter acknowledged that he was ashamed of his reading and writing skills.  When I asked him if he wanted to graduate with his current level of skills, he began to tell me of his fifth grade classroom where he had had a severe conflict with his teacher and had given up on school, especially on reading.  He had had to repeat 5th grade. He had felt humiliated by the teacher and had decided then, on some level, never to allow that type of humiliation to happen again, so he had avoided reading at all costs.  In the course of telling me this story, Walter, a proud seventeen-year-old, began to cry.  He had opened up the past event that had been blocking him from his academic success.  It's my belief that all of our experiences together up to that point, especially his successes with the video yearbook (although he had not yet earned credit for the course), led to his willingness to share that past hurt and to begin to hope for future academic success.

Over the course of the next few months, Walter and I worked our way through many books and his skills grew exponentially.  I will never forget the night he finished up his first true essay, on a thesis he had developed himself, an essay complete with quotations he selected from the novel to support his assertions.  He was so proud of that essay!  He KNEW it was great, that it had all the elements necessary for a good paper, but also had his own ideas and theories about the book he had read.  He jumped up from the table and ran to the telephone to talk to his grandmother.  He excitedly yelled to her that he had finished it and it was "totally phat!"

Our time spent together on that first Quality Product had shown Walter his true abilities.  He had given up back in 5th grade because of what we, here at Murray, would consider to be a mistaken policy of failure in schools.  Because of the Video Yearbook success, he was able to convince himself that there was hope for his graduating from high school.  He knew that he had accomplished something of quality that was valuable to others and that led him to believe that he could accomplish other equally daunting tasks, like reading books and writing essays.  

Many educators would assert that the time spent on creating that video yearbook was time wasted.  After all, could learning Final Cut Pro prepare Walter to do well on his state standards of learning tests?  Shouldn't we have been spending the time doing practice tests and making sure Walter could tell the difference between their, there, and they're?

Our answer at Murray, which has been proven to be true time and time again, with students from all backgrounds, is that first comes healing from failure.  Time is needed for students to begin to trust teachers again, and especially to begin to trust themselves again.  Only then is there an opportunity to help students turn away from wasting their lives in rebellion against learning, possibly even dropping out of school. 

We believe that no matter how long it takes, the healing and relationship-building come first and then the academics will almost inevitably follow.  We have found here at Murray that just about 100% of our students really WANT to graduate from school and do well in academics.  They would like to imagine themselves in college, and then having a fulfilling career and lifestyle.  They have simply lost that vision of themselves somewhere in the labyrinth of the failure system that chokes our traditional high schools.  When that failure system is done away with, when students are given respect and confidence by their teachers, then they begin to transform themselves right before our eyes.  Walter's story ends with a graduation.  It even ends with his earning an advanced pass on his statewide writing exam!!  Amazing, and for this teacher, life-affirming.   I learned as much from Walter as he ever learned from me.  We made a good team.

Charlotte Wellen,  Murray Choices Teacher, NBCT, and Practicum Supervisor for the William Glasser Institute

* A Quality World is a Choice Theory concept developed by Dr. Glasser.  He believes that all humans are constantly creating a picture in their minds of what people, things, and ideas best meet our needs.   He explains that if we want to create a strong relationship with someone, we should make it a point to learn what is in their Quality Worlds.

**  A Community Meeting is a gathering of our entire community, usually once a week, where we make announcements and then have an open mic discussion of community issues.  We also often share our quality products and do teambuilding activities to learn more about one another.

***  NCY (No Credit Yet)   One of the requirements of a Glasser Quality School is that students must continue to work on every assignment to bring it up to the level of a B or an A.  They may not settle for a C, D, F, or Zero.  We have a saying that we've based our mastery learning on:  "Learning is a constant.  Time is a variable."  This means that students who do not meet deadlines are not let off the hook.  To a Murray staff member, it is unacceptable for a teacher to use a deadline to let students off the hook, to teach them that if you are unable to make the deadline, just quit and never learn the skills the assignment was designed to teach you.  We believe that this policy in traditional schools is very hurtful to students, leading directly toward student apathy, especially in students who have had difficult lives.  Facing the possibility of failure is overwhelming to many people and they withdraw and quit trying.  At Murray, when we simply change the system and say that failure is not an option, students find that they are perfectly capable of learning even the toughest concepts.  We believe that this emphasis on mastery learning is what enables students who arrive here with transcripts full of failing grades to turn their lives around and end up attending college and heading toward a career based on talents and abilities they had given up on after time in the traditional schools.

****  At a Glasser Quality School there is no punishment because punishment is an attempt to control someone else through fear and power-over.  This is a concept of external control psychology.  Dr. Glasser believes that humans are motivated by internal control psychology and that no one else can control our behavior choices.  He believes we can learn how to become more and more in charge of making the best choices for our lives.  Based on these ideas, we created the Choices program, where students can come to make plans for success.  If they neglect to choose what we call "learning behaviors," teachers can send them to choices to clarify what learning behaviors are and to make a plan to be happy and successful in class.  These plans often involve setting up a mediation if conflicts have occurred and working them out together, again so everyone can return to class and be happy and successful.  Choices plans are not written down in student files and are not reported to parents.  They are considered to be a productive and important part of learning how to observe what we need and then make a plan to get that accomplished.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Using Choice Theory with Your Teen

Good Afternoon! March 7, 2009

It occurred to me today that I have been gifted with the opportunity to teach at a very unique school, where students, teachers, administration, and parents are valued as community members, respected as learners, and loved as friends. Often, students and parents say to me, "Why aren't all schools like this one?" There are no easy answers to that question, and I applaud anyone who is working to figure out how to improve the quality of our schools, especially to help them become welcoming places our kids love to go every day.

I decided to keep a blog where I am going to record some of the amazing transformational stories that continue to happen, year after year, at Murray High School, the world's first Glasser Quality Public High School, based on the ideas of Dr. William Glasser (internationally published psychiatrist, educator, and speaker --

I hope that by reading these stories(names and situations changed, of course), and by paying close attention to the way we speak to one another at our school, anyone working with (or living with) at-risk teens can see how Choice Theory, Reality Therapy, and Lead Management can help improve the way you talk to your teen and to everyone else you value, so you can improve the quality of your important relationships.

In this, my first blog entry, I thought I would tell the story of Mike, a seventeen-year-old male, who joined us in August of his junior year (Students at Murray have to apply to get in. The requirements for admission are simple: students have to WANT to come to a new school and try something different to improve their lives.).

Mike had been at Murray about three days and he came roaring out of his P.E. class, telling everyone where to go, cursing up one side and down the other at the top of his lungs. He charged into the office, where they took his name down and directed him to me. I am the Choices Teacher for the school and it's my job to help people calm down and make some choices to get what they really want.

When Mike arrived in my room, his face was blazing red and he was still speaking in a seemingly angry, annoyed, elevated tone of voice. He couldn't sit down at first, pacing back and forth in my room, flinging his arms around and kicking at chairs and tables. He wasn't really listening to me yet, and I let him fume for awhile. A few minutes later, he turned to me and said, "Are you going to let me go on like this forever?"

I smiled and said, "Nope. You've got about five more minutes to get it out of your system if you need it before we go to any further steps. It looks to me like you need a bit of time to dump some anger and I appreciate it that you're confining yourself to this room and you're taking care of your excess energy by pacing and doing some arm and leg exercises. That's fine. Let me know when you're ready to talk a bit. I can wait. I'm busy here."

He stood and stared at me. I knew he had not expected my response and I had him thinking it all over. He said, "Do you think this kind of anger is okay at a school?"

I said, "You're asking some really thoughtful questions. I think this level of anger is inevitable in a school because schools are filled with humans and once in awhile most humans that I've met need some time to get some anger off their chests. Do you think this level of anger is okay in a school?"

He shook his head and said, "Every school I've been to would have thrown me out by now. The principal would have yelled at me and threatened me with the police. I would have told him where to go and stomped out. You're just sitting here, working. What are you planning to do with me?"

"I'm not planning to do anything 'with you,' if you mean punish you in some way. Do you think you need punishing?"

"Hey! A lot of people have tried punishing me! Everyone I know has, especially my parents! I've even been locked up for six months for taking a sledgehammer to the inside of our trailer. I've been put on every medication they've got for anger issues and I've even done this!" At this point, he pulled up his shirtsleeve and showed me a deep cut that went almost completely around his arm. It was just beginning to heal and looked red, swollen, and very painful. "Do you want to know how this happened?" he demanded. "I did it to myself! I have a terrible anger problem and you're probably going to get to know me really well in here, because I am always in trouble in school." He glared at me, as if daring me to disagree with him. I think he believed that he was thoroughly scaring me and trying to manage me somehow.

"Mike, that's a pretty bad cut. How did you do it? What was happening that led you to make such a huge cut on your arm?"

He said, "My father was beating my mother up in the kitchen and I ran in there and told him not to touch her. He knocked her on the floor and came at me and I saw a big old butcher knife on the kitchen counter and grabbed it and I realized that I basically had two choices -- to stab my father with it, or to cut my own arm. I figured that if my arm was really cut bad they'd have to stop fighting and take me to the emergency room, so I cut the knife all around my arm and blood went everywhere and my father slapped me and called me an idiot, but he wrapped my arm in a towel and drove me to the emergency room. Fight over."

"Whoa! I said. I am really impressed with your ability to control your anger in one of life's toughest situations."

He shook his head like I was crazy and said, "You don't get it. I did that because I was completely out of control. Only a crazy person would cut himself like that."

I said, "That's not what the evidence shows me. I see someone who cared so much about his mother and his father that rather than stabbing his father, he took the pain on himself. I'm not sure that I could have had that much presence of mind to think through the situation and to choose that option. I think you showed quite a bit of restraint and courage and possibly stopped something much worse from happening. That's impressive to me. I don't know that I could have done it. There were only two choices you could think of and you took what I also would consider to be the best one. Amazing."

He didn't say anything for a second or two and just stared down at the healing wound on his arm. Then he looked up at me and said, "Where did you learn to talk to people like this?"

I smiled at him and said, "I'm just talking to you using Choice Theory, which is an idea that this school is based on. I'm noticing the strength of will that you have and realizing that you are capable of making very tough choices in tough situations and that a lot of people could learn a great deal from listening to how you've handled things in your life."

I could tell that he liked what I was saying to him because he could see the truth in it. Rather than continuing to think of himself as out of control and a victim of his huge anger problems, which couldn't even be helped with brain medications, he was beginning to think of himself as someone with exceptional abilities to make good choices in difficult situations, a much stronger type of thinking.

Mike and I became good friends, over time. He was right. I got to see him often because he continued to explode in anger and we continued to work through the anger, coming up with plans to straighten out what he had done and get back to work.

He had predicted he wouldn't last a week at our school, but he made it through an entire year. I wish we could have gotten hold of him earlier, but he decided to get his GED and join the military, rather than finishing up another year in high school.

A couple of years later, I ran into him, shopping with his mother in a local grocery store. He was all dressed up in his military uniform and looked fabulous. He came over and practically lifted me off the floor in a huge hug and told me that he was doing exceptionally well and he apologized for not graduating.

I told him it did my heart proud to see him so happy and that graduation was not something to ever worry about again. He had made that decision and moved on. The trick was to create happiness for himself and his loved ones, using the skills he had picked up in his life so far. He said, "Choice Theory!" and laughed.

"Do you find Choice Theory useful in the military?" I wondered.

"Hah! Do I ever! Everything I learned at Murray about dealing with anger kept me from getting thrown in the brig. Well, I did get thrown in the brig, but only once. I figured out how to make a better choice before opening my big mouth to an officer." His eyes gleamed with amusement. "Who would ever have thought that I'd make it in the military where everyone is telling me what to do all the time and no one talks nice? I remember I was so angry at the P.E. teacher's 'attitude.' My drill sergeant made her look like the sweetest person on earth."

"Sounds like you've got a lot of things figured out, sir."

"I'm working on it, Ms. Wellen. I'm working on it, aren't I Mom?" His mother beamed over at him and said, "I hardly recognize you, all grown up in that uniform and treating all of us to groceries. You know I'm proud of you."

The two of them headed for the checkout stand and I haven't seen him since, but I believe he's got the skills now to handle most situations life has to offer without losing his temper, and especially without believing that he is helpless to deal with his anger. He's taken ownership of his emotional outbursts and is learning to manage them to bring himself more and more happiness.

Charlotte Wellen

P.S. I welcome comments and would be happy to discuss any problems you may be facing with teens. I am not a psychologist or a counselor. But I am certified to teach Choice Theory, Reality Therapy, and Lead Management and I would be glad to help if I can.