I am taking Peter on a “walking break”, the little routine I’ve developed with several of my kids. Our deal is, you try your darnedest to behave yourself in the classroom, where it’s usually one teacher and twenty-plus children and alas, it won’t all go exactly how you want it, and I’ll do my best to get you out, a couple times a day, to give you three minutes of All About You. I set a little timer on my iPhone, and they know the drill: as soon as it goes off, you need to transition calmly back to the classroom, or Teacher Beth isn’t gonna get you next time. It’s a quick little investment, with multiple payoffs. My students get a chance to practice that hard skill of moving between preferred and less preferred activities, the classroom teacher gets a few minutes reprieve, a long period of time gets broken into two more manageable increments (pre- and post- break.) Plus the physical exercise, for my wiggliest kids, and the emotional regulation, for the ones who are more fragile.
Peter needs both those elements. He is wiry and compact, every inch of him a tight, wound muscle–he sometimes uses his walking breaks to swing across the monkey bars twenty-five times. And he struggles, mightily, with handling strong emotions and sharing attention with others: even the slightest upset can snowball for Peter if he does not have quick access to an adult to help him process. Lately, the biggest source of angst has been his dawning awareness that the people HE is friends with have other friends as well, and the terror he feels that they’ll leave him behind. In more problematic moments, this expresses itself as his complicated schemes to split one friend off from the other, or wheedling manipulations to make another love him best. In calmer moments, though, he sometimes brings it up and we’re able to talk about it–and walking breaks are a good way to create the space for this.
“All my friends are in love with my other friends,” he says, apropos of nothing, as he swings on the bars.
“Hmm…what does that mean, ‘in love’, I wonder? I mean, in first grade–you’re the expert about this. What does it mean?”
“It means they love each other, like special. Ella loves Tio, and Simona loves Jonathon, and Niko loves Xenia, but she also loves me. It’s like, I don’t know, like best friends or something. Like special. Like you want to be with that person.”
I am fumbling inside myself for a direction to take this–our last conversation around defining a word (“coordination”) was so much easier than this one. We clapped out the syllables, found the little word inside the big one, used “coordinate” in a sentence a couple of times. I’m scheming a different tactic when he speaks again.
“In love is a pretty big word.” He claps it out, both words, and seems genuinely puzzled that it’s only two claps.
“I think maybe, Peter, it’s that love is a pretty big idea. It’s a little word, really, but there’s a lot inside the word. There’s a lot to understand about the word, and about the feelings.”
He smiles at that. “Yeah. It’s something even you don’t know!”
“I think I know a little bit, but you’re right. I’m still learning.”
The timer goes off, and he scampers away.