Reading Faces

Kwick/ March 19, 2013/ Sharing Stories

I remember my school observation of Tory Browning with particular clarity. She was a sturdy, dark-haired second grader, and although she was the tallest child in the class, did not seem the most mature. There was something lost about her expression, as if she was younger than the other children and struggling to keep up. At first I wondered why this should be so. When called on to read aloud, she did really well, pronouncing big words fluently and without hesitation. But a little later, discussing the story she had been reading, Tory became uncomfortable. It was clear she understood little about the characters’ motives and emotions. I saw, too, that fairly simple math was difficult for her and writing was a laborious process. It was clear that there were learning issues.

Watching Tory later in less structured activities I noticed that although her classmates made it easy for her to join in on the playground, she more or less went about her own business. Tory observed the other children yet was unable to find just the right moment to join in. Often refusing invitations to play tag and jump rope, she finally agreed to play horses with another little girl using a jump rope for reins. It seemed to me that she felt she wasn’t very good at the more challenging activities and participated only when she felt she could perform well.

I also noticed that her interactions were not driven by social interests. She didn’t seem to care whom she played with or to have particular friends—but chose activities solely on the basis of whether she was willing to engage in a particular game. This can be one of the signs of a difficulty with social-emotional learning.

But the heart of the problem, Tory’s parents had said, was her behavior with the teacher, Ms. Mardian. “I’ll ask her to do something and she just doesn’t do it,” Ms. Mardian explained. “It’s as if she doesn’t hear me. I tell her to do something and I’ll find her drifting around, still not doing it. I will actually feel myself getting angrier and angrier with her, but she doesn’t seem to care! She just goes on doing whatever she feels like. She doesn’t respond to what should be a real warning!”

I speculated, and testing later verified, that there were several issues involved. The learning and attention issues that I diagnosed had clearly mattered less in first grade and had been minimized by a teacher alert to her learning style and needs. Tory’s first grade teacher had been an excellent fit for her. She had picked up on her difficulty with writing and recommended an occupational therapist. Tory could dictate her ideas rather than struggle with her fine motor writing skills. And in her first grade class problems with attention mattered less.

Most of all it was the social-emotional issues that were causing Tory’s problems with her second grade teacher. She was a child who had trouble with understanding “faces, places, and spaces.” There was information in her surroundings that she wasn’t taking in. Tory’s first grade teacher had been extremely demonstrative. She didn’t just smile, she beamed! If she was impressed with a child’s work, she put her hand to her heart and staggered backward, as if overcome. If she was unhappy with a child’s behavior she frowned deeply, put her hands on her hips, and shook her head. The visual cues she offered the class were extremely clear and hard to miss. And they were reinforced by verbal cues as well. “I’m thrilled with how good this is!” “I love it!” “I’m sorry. This is not okay. Let’s try this way.”

I went back to second grade and this time I observed not the child but the teacher, Ms. Mardian.

She was a reserved and understated individual. Ms. Mardian rewarded a good effort with a faint smile, she quelled noise with a slight downward motion of one hand, and when she received a wrong answer she winced and paused, then went on as if she hadn’t heard it. Ms. Mardian’s visual cues were in fact extremely subtle and difficult to read. Tory had a great deal of trouble with understanding non-verbal information. Her skills were not as fully developed as those of many of her peers. Tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions needed to be powerful and straightforward for her to understand them. She had known exactly where she was with her first grade teacher, hence she was more responsive, and and felt more confident as a result.

In Tory’s eyes, Ms. Mardian was simply a mystery and a terror. When Tory’s attention issues or inability to do a particular task attracted her teacher’s notice, Tory did not understand the subsequent encounter. Ms. Mardian spoke with so little emphasis that Tory read her instructions as suggestions, and never picked up on Ms. Mardian’s mounting frustration and anger. When it would finally dawn on Tory that she was doing something wrong she had no idea what she had done wrong nor what would make it right. Distraught and lacking confidence, she would instinctively gravitate to the activities that felt most comfortable—and get in trouble again for hiding out in the reading corner when she should have been doing what Ms. Mardian asked.

There were several things I could do to help Tory, including having her work with a therapist who could teach her to read non-verbal cues. And when ready, join a social development group where she could learn these skills with peers in real time. I also explained the problem to Ms. Mardian and was glad to find that she wanted to teach students like Tory more effectively. It is difficult to change one’s level of expressiveness, but Ms. Mardian took on the task. Using a variety of suggestions including video she succeeded in making more emphatic gestures and broader expressions. She had not realized how little she had appeared to approve of her students, and worked to make her positive emotions show. I also suggested that she add verbal expressions of her feelings. “I like that!” “This is making me really frustrated.” “I’m so glad you’re getting this!”

When I saw Ms. Mardian again, she was eager to tell me how things were going. “You were absolutely right about the way children take in information in multiple ways. Since I’ve started showing my emotions more clearly and also putting them into words, the children have started doing it too. We all understand each other better. The children understand themselves better and I do as well. When a child can say, “I’m getting angry!” it’s usually enough to prevent a melt down, especially if we can discuss what the problem is.”

This was good news. Even better was word that the school performance of my young patient, Tory Browning, had improved markedly. Both because of her therapy, her group and because Ms. Mardian’s words were a sort of Rosetta Stone to her expressions and gestures, Tory was getting much better at reading non-verbal cues. She often still played on her own. Arithmetic was still difficult. But as her ability to read faces grew stronger, she learned more, she joined in more, she was more comfortable and self confident.

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