At the age of 27, while working towards my Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley, I found myself in charge of the psychological needs of a middle school of 600 students. I was testing and diagnosing students as fast as I could. Another part of my job was running counseling groups for troubled students.
At every school I worked, I was given the boys with the worst behavior problems in the school. One middle school group was made up of eight boys each of whom was roughly 12 years old. I saw them once a week and chatted with them about things they liked to talk about. I created a connection with them. We had a rapport.
Middle school is interesting because the social hierarchy is so clearly formed by the age of 11. There is a pecking order. There are the cool kids, the geeks, the outcasts, the skaters and so on. And even within this group of 8 boys, there was a pecking order.
The student at the bottom of the pecking order, let’s call him Todd to preserve his anonymity, was the most impulsive of the lot. Todd couldn’t stay in his chair, couldn’t keep his body still for more than 5 seconds. He had no social skills. He was frequently involved in fistfights with other kids because his mouth would go in motion before his mind caught up. He’d insult a bigger, older student and wind up getting the snot beat out of him every week. The other students teased him mercilessly causing a gradual build up of anger within him.
Now when I run a group, I try to give these students a different response than what they typically get from adults – anger, contempt, and punishment. So I try to be relaxed, calm, and authentic.
One day, I was running the group as usual and the boys were more stirred up than usual. Todd, in particular, was agitated and wound more tightly than normal.
Towards the end of the hour, for some unknown reason, Todd sprung out of his chair, hopped the table and ran towards me. As he closed on me, he made a fist and took a swing at my face. I did not make any attempt to stop him. Todd’s fist stopped an inch from my nose. Apparently, he had some self-control after all.
My eyes met his and then looked down at his fist. I had a choice to make. Do I send him to the vice-principal for discipline or do I take a risk and treat him differently than every other adult in his life treated him? Rather than send him to the vice-principal for discipline, I told him he had a choice: take his seat or return to class. He chose to take his seat.
I turned to the group and asked them, “Okay, now what just happened?” The boys were stunned. It took a few minutes to get anyone to say anything. Eventually, one boy said he saw Todd take a swing at me and I did not respond. He said he had never seen anything like it. In his world, anger was always met