“Derek”* is a great kid. He bounces around, asks questions, and wants to know who you are if you are a stranger to him. Derek can also go from 1 to 100 emotionally in a matter of seconds. He also harbors so much anxiety that at times he can hardly walk through a simple school doorway. But, guess who his best friend is…..Ms. Wendy Gilliam, principal of Gateway Math and Science Academy (GSA) in St. Louis, Missouri. How many kindergartners can claim that?
Derek came to GSA last year to start kindergarten, but his uncle, “Mr. Stewart,”** was very afraid of what might happen when Derek encountered what he had nicknamed “the BIG kids’ school.” Derek had frequent uncontrolled outbursts in pre-school, was unable to follow directions, lacked social skills, and experienced huge anxiety. While Mr. Stewart had resigned himself to send Derek to a neighborhood county school, he kept passing the GSA school banner on Gravois Avenue and was really drawn to a school that provided STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to kindergarten students up through high school and that was open and free to the public. In the end, one day on his way to work at a local grocery store, Mr. Stewart decided to try GSA. He felt STEM education is the future, and if Derek had any chance at all in the world, he needed to be armed with strong skills—specifically in math and the sciences. Mr. Stewart was glad he made that choice right away. He still wasn’t sure how Derek would fare, but he saw the staff was warm and inviting and that was a really good start.
After the first three weeks of class however, Derek became too hard to handle. With his outbursts, phone calls to home every day and Derek’s resistance to authority issues, he became a safety concern to his class and to others in the building. Mr. Stewart knew this day would come. He was astounded it took this long. He expected Derek to be expelled within the first two days of school for sure. Ms. Gilliam called an all-staff meeting to discuss how to engage Derek. When Mr. Stewart was called into that meeting, he knew he had to tell Derek’s story.
Derek was neglected by his mother, as an infant and toddler, and left alone in a secluded room for long periods of time—sometimes in complete darkness. So, from infancy to 4 years old, during the most critical learning time of a young child’s life, he was left abandoned to fend for himself. Mr. Stewart was his uncle at the time and decided to take little Derek into his care after he discovered what was happening. But, being only his uncle, he had limited capacity to provide the psychological or emotional services Derek so desperately needed after being traumatized for four years.
Fast forward to entering kindergarten at GSA, Ms. Gilliam, and that all-staff meeting. After Derek’s story was told the staff began to understand the full gravity of this situation and the trauma little Derek had experienced, she simply said, “Well we’ll just have to go at this in a different way.” Several accommodations were tried. First there was one-on-one care, but that did not help him transition socially.
Then there were small-group instruction experiences. Here Derek seemed better. Derek was even placed for a time during the day in an upper-level classroom to see how acceptable behavior was modeled by the older students. It seemed, however, the longer the time in a classroom and the more kids were added to the mix, the more his behavioral consistency waned.
Ms. Gilliam never quit on Derek. She told her staff in meetings, “We have enough collective experience in this building and this is NOT Derek’s fault. So, we need to all work together and figure out how we help him.” The school came together as one team and wrapped themselves around Derek completely. The administrative team was consistent in how they handled Derek across the board. The protocols were the same every time. Several classrooms have even put up thin panels of blue cloth over the florescent lights. They found the diffused light lessened Derek’s confusion and anxiety. When Ms. Gilliam performs her regular walkthroughs of classrooms in her building, as a reward, when she comes to Derek’s room she would take him along with her throughout the rest of the building because he enjoyed the time with her. But in order to receive this reward, he had to have eaten his breakfast without incident, completed his academic work, and followed instructions that day. The goal was to get him to self-manage.
Meanwhile, Mr. Stewart was trying every way he could to find the professional help Derek needed. However, since he was not Derek’s legal guardian, he was stymied. Psychological and physical testing was so cost prohibitive. Then, he took the brave step and filed for guardianship. After that process was completed, Ms. Gilliam coordinated a complete testing series—from the psychiatrist to the pediatrician. Mr. Stewart and his partner, who fully supported Derek, spent their savings of $8,000 in about six months. After a total assessment, Derek had a diagnosis, one that was closely aligned with the trauma he had experienced.
Ms. Gilliam admits that she and her staff learned so much during this past year and a half. After Derek was diagnosed, her staff didn’t relinquish responsibility to the outside professionals. Now that the staff better understood his condition, they continued to treat him like the important member of the GSA family that he is and kept working to improve Derek’s outcomes.
Since last February there have been little or no instances of outbursts. The daily phone calls to report negative behavior have turned into positive celebrations. Derek every day is trying to navigate what has happened to him and heal. The staff at GSA tries to support him in that difficult journey by taking him from no structure to structure and giving him strategies to navigate transitions and social situations. Derek knows that school is a safe environment and he is responsible for his own actions at school. He knows he must do his work like the rest of his peers. His history does not define him and GSA will never compromise the high expectations they have for him.
As a side note, Derek’s kindergarten teacher was only in her first year of teaching. She was a Bosnian refugee for who herself was kept in a basement for 3 years. Even though it was a struggle to try to help and teach Derek, she was able to connect back with her own experience and the staff rallied around her.
“This is a normal kid who didn’t have a chance for a normal upbringing. How do you turn this around?” Ms. Gilliam says as she thinks back to the beginning. “You first have to get in, and collectively as a staff we had to scratch our heads, and get our cuts and bruises. But look at him now. If we had given up on him—where would he be? But, it’s not over. There are more chapters to go. . .”
* “Derek” is a pseudonym to protect the student’s identity.
** “Mr. Stewart” is a pseudonym to protect the parent’s identity.