POW-WeddingsTeachers can help students move from hurtful action-talk to helpful actual talk.

I just read an article that (1) made me smile because of its simplicity and compassion and (2) blew my mind a little because it worked.

The article is titled “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But What About Words?” It’s by a guy named William Sharp and is published in a journal that probably isn’t on every teacher’s nightstand: The International Journal of Group Psychotherapy (volume 64, number 3, July 2014, pp. 281-296).

Here’s what William Sharp wrote about: He ran a group for inner city third graders who had “behavioral issues” in the classroom. They routinely yelled, threw things, got antsy, interrupted, fought with other students, etc. In their weekly meetings (of 42 minutes each), the 8 boys who signed up spent the first few months playing and resisting opportunities to talk. Importantly, Sharp made time for talk, and he was very explicit about how much time and when “talk time” began (using a timer).

The goal of the group was to help the boys start talking rather than acting out, but Sharp noticed something important: For these active boys, “words held no real meaning” (p. 285). Rather, actions carried meaning. For example, as Sharp describes, one boy often asked to go to the bathroom. Sharp noticed that this boy “asked” to use the restroom when it came time for him to listen to someone else in the group. Sharp hypothesized that this boy felt extremely uncomfortable waiting on other people and wanted to escape as soon as he began feeling this way. Hence, the action. The question itself held no meaning, as the boy didn’t really have to go to the bathroom; what he needed was to flee.

Sharp shared his guess with the boys and asked this particular boy if he could try to wait for a few minutes every meeting. The boy agreed and was able to increase his wait time every week. “As a testimony to the power of the group,” Sharp writes, “by spring, no one in the group needed to take a bathroom break during group time” (p. 285).

This is where I began to smile out of sheer joy at this man’s brilliance, compassion, and clear seeing.

Sharp noted that the boys needed to pass through an intermediate phase before becoming comfortable with direct talking. That stage Sharp calls “action-talk.” He defines action-talk this way: “Instead of with fists, a child can punch with insults and slanders. There is no symbolization with words, however, just discharge” (p. 286). In this intermediate stage, rather than act out with their bodies, the boys acted out with their words, hurting others and relieving themselves.

Sharp’s automatic response to this aggressive talk was to want to SHUT IT DOWN. The anxious feelings that come through in action-talk can be highly contagious, and any self-respecting adult naturally wants to alleviate her own anxiety by squelching the source. But Sharp gave the boys room to express themselves AND to experience the aftermaths with each other and with their self-aware and patient group leader. Over time, the boys had to learn that words actually WOULDN’T hurt them, something they were supposed to believe but clearly didn’t. They had to learn how to turn action-talk to (just) talk — and to trust that talk would work.

Smiles. Smiles, smiles, smiles. This work was transformative for those deserving boys, and reading about it made me happy.

It also made me a better parent. Instantaneously. Here’s a true story that happened the night I read this article. The characters in this story Shall Remain Unnamed In Order to Protect the Innocent.

Once upon a time, a pre-teenage boy was going to bed after a long, deadly hot day at soccer camp. He was lying on his bed; his mother was encouraging him to brush his teeth; and his father was downstairs, calling up to his son.

Dad: Son, there are some smelly soccer socks on the floor here in the living room. Please come get them.

Son: Shut up, you jerk!

Mom (wanting to smack this obnoxious child but thinking “action-talk to talk, action-talk to talk”): Whoa! Son, why don’t you try using some different words here?

Son: No! Stop being a jerk.

Mom (gritting her teeth): Son, the words you’re using are only hurting. Try using different ones that will explain what’s going on with you.

Son: I’m-really-tired-and-don’t-want-to-do-anything-right-now-because-I’m-really-tired!!!

Dad: That’s close enough.

The next morning, the mother and father noticed that the soccer socks had disappeared from the living room floor.

From action-talk to talk. From fear of being coerced and misunderstood to honest self-expression, self-care, and, eventually, right action. All because hurtful action-talk was neither shut down nor punished, but acknowledged and diverted. (Fortunately, the son in this story had ready access to words thanks to years and years and years of being encouraged to use them.)

Why should teachers care about this article? Because most teachers have boys in their classrooms, and many of those boys will prefer action and action-talk to actual talk. Because those teachers will find themselves wanting to shut those boys down before giving them a chance to say what they need to say — and practice at using words is essential to developing the emotional literacy all boys (and girls) need to function healthily throughout their lives. Because developing emotional literacy is just as important as developing any other kind of literacy.

And because teachers need the kind of hope and compassion that William Sharp demonstrates for his trouble-making boys, hope and compassion that can blossom into a broad and joyous smile — something else all teachers need.