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“Loosening the Choke on the Development of Young Children”


Editor’s note: Missioner Tim Shelgren shares some of the progress he has seen in his 3rd grade classroom in Kingston, Jamaica, and reflects on the source of overactive behavior in the young boys.

Since I arrived in Kingston, Jamaica four months ago, I have been serving as an assistant in a unique 3rd grade classroom at St. Francis Primary School. Our class is made up of nineteen “overactive” boys who have been grouped together for two years as an experiment. Within that time, if the boys learn to control their overactive behavior, they will be reintegrated into the normal, co-ed classroom.

Each day the boys demonstrate these types of behaviors and more:

1) They play rough until someone gets hurt. Then, their fists start flying.

2) They argue loudly and continuously at the top of their voices.

3) They throw their shoes into the ceiling fans, and laugh when the fan blades smack the shoes against the wall or into someone’s face.

My questions are these: Where do these behaviors come from, and what are we to do about them?

When I ask these questions to the teachers who I serve with, they tell me the behaviors stem from the lack of fathers in the family homes and in the children’s lives. And a friend, Debra, a Jamaican medical doctor, adds that marriage in Jamaica is not the norm at all. Some men will have up to seventeen children with multiple women, and provide support for none of them. Debra emphasizes, “Men get children here, not have them. And the more children they get, the more macho they are perceived to be.”

In Kingston’s newspaper “The Gleaner,” Martin Henry describes the phenomena like this… “Our fatherlessness problem is being a world leader in fathering children outside marriage or even permanent committed relationships, something which we have glorified and normalized.” Comparing this problem and statistics with North America’s rising divorce rates, Henry says, “This is the Albatross hanging around the neck of this nation, weighing us down and choking development.”

As a teacher’s assistant, a second question remains: How might I possibly influence a group of fatherless boys who are choking in their development?

A quick look at the world of psychology will suggest that I may get results by using punitive authority, behavioral therapy, or by developing relationships with the boys. In my four months’ time at St. Francis Primary School so far, I have already determined which approaches I will not and will use.

Though I have seen a number of Jamaican moms and female teachers get effective results with loud verbal corrections accompanied by a gentle cuff on the top of the shoulder or forearm, I cannot use this type of authority. I am not a Jamaican mom or female teacher. To be forceful with Jamaican children is not my right. And even if I tried, I would not get the same results.

Behavioral therapy works to some extent in our classroom. For example, teacher Miss Prussia will sometimes write names on the board of boys who have lost their privilege of break time. Or conversely, she will hand out little rubber-band bracelets to the boys who have earned the privilege of taking extended breaks. Though keeping track of names and rubber-bands is a complex task, this use of consequences and rewards can be effective once in a while.

Miss Prussia has been teaching elementary school children for fourteen years. Her teaching skills are evident—as is her belief in consistency and relationship. Similarly, in my few years of studying psychology and working in fields of counseling, parent education, and at a boys’ home, I, too, have come to see the value in consistency and relationship.

To meet the criteria, I go in to class every day and give attention to the boys. I prepare a devotion for them each morning. And throughout the week, I provide stories and songs with messages (and choreography), yoga practice, and one-on-one reading sessions to those who struggle with reading. In whatever ways I can find to connect with them, I try.

With these daily attempts, the boys’ behaviors are starting to shift. Christopher, for example, who I used to literally drag to the library for his reading session, is now greeting me at the school gate in the morning and dragging me to the library. And Jayden, who I previously held in a physical restraint twice to keep him from injury, held me in restraint the other day and said, “I love you Uncle Tim.” I thank God that these little successes are showing themselves in the classroom. And I also thank Miss Prussia for her supportive comment, “The boys know that you really care about them.”

Yes, I really do care about the boys at St. Francis Primary School. Despite their challenging behaviors, they are easy to love. Without even knowing they are doing so, they return every bit of caring attention that they get. And in that exchange, their behaviors become less rough and sometimes even peacefully constructive.

Antoine and his dad

This message of caring-attention-needed is one that I am learning to give to the dads who do show up at school with their children (the other morning I counted 10 dads among 850 students). Antoine’s dad, for one, brings him to school every day and walks him all the way to his desk. When I told him that Antoine is the calmest, most diligent boy in the class, he smiled proudly from ear to ear. And last week, for the first time, I met Malicke’s young dad. He was hesitant, but he did accept my acknowledgment to him for bringing his son to school. In this case, Malicke was the proud one, proud to show off his dad.  

What is one way, then, to loosen the “choke on the development of young children?” Dads, give your children consistent, caring attention. Your attention alone may quiet their argumentative voices, calm their rough play, and release the grip of their fists. These results are exactly what I am seeing after giving the boys at St. Francis Primary School attention for only four months. Though in no way an expert, I feel confident in proposing that men all over the world—again, statistics show we have the same problem in the States due to divorce—can better the lives of their children by being available to them.

Reflection question: Where have you seen progress in your life?

Tim Shelgren has led many youth mission trips as a committed Christian. He has worked as a hair stylist, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, and most recently as a counselor at a residential home for teenage boys. A father of three and grandfather of five, Tim is passionate about working for equality for all people and has a special interest in working with children and youth without families. After living recently in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Tim is looking forward learning and growing spiritually by serving in another culture. He likes rock and tree climbing, riding bikes with friends, and playing piano, just like he did when he was a kid.