In the mid 1980s I took a teaching position in a short-term shelter for homeless families in Uptown, on the north side of Chicago. The shelter is housed in a former Holiday Inn. At the time, the shelter offered a number of services for residents, including a public school classroom, a Head Start program, and a classroom for young children. I worked in the classroom for young children, originally called the “Nursery School.” My co-teacher and I re-named it the “Playschool.”
The most common factors drawing families to the shelter included domestic violence, eviction, or natural disaster (fire, most often). Most of the families were mothers with children, some whose ages ranged from infancy to early adolescence. They led transient, chaotic lives. Some families stayed in the shelter for 24 hours, somehow able to secure housing, while others remained for several weeks. The average stay for most families was two weeks. The most common single-factor keeping families in the shelter: the inability to scrape together two months’ rent for a security deposit on an apartment.
The Playschool was a single classroom serving children from 2 through 6 years of age. It was a converted hotel room, so the space was small. Still, it was equipped with some staples one would find in most early childhood classrooms: a play area with toys, games, and equipment, which doubled as a group time area; two tiny tables which tripled as art activity, game, and snack surfaces; an area for quiet activities, such as reading; and a tiny bathroom and storage area. Two large windows looked out on what used to be the former hotel’s pool area. The pool had been filled with dirt and covered with sod. This was the outdoor play area shared by the Head Start program and our classroom.
What became apparent to me early on was the ephemeral nature of the lives of the children with whom I came in contact. I might see a child for one day, only to learn the next morning that the family had moved out of the shelter the night before; in other instances a child might remain in the shelter for 4-5 weeks. It was a daily experience of hellos and goodbyes — constant separation. Upon the child’s departure, I was required to submit a summary of my impressions, on a 5 ” X 7″ form. It never did justice to describing any of them, including whose who were there for only 24 hours. In the 18 months I worked there, six families returned to the shelter.
The number of children in the room fluctuated daily, too. We might have two children one day and twelve the next. The most effective response to this constant change was to do everything we could to provide stability, and to respond daily to whatever the group presented to us. These efforts were odd bed fellows, as we worked to balance predictability with a flexible daily plan (teachers are trained in myriad ways to do short-term and long-term planning — in this setting, that principle was shelved).
Children who came to the classroom were frequently exhausted, some having arrived in the middle of the night. It was quite common for children to come to the room un-bathed, with colds or other respiratory ailments, or with lice. On their first day in the classroom, many showed behaviors typical in response to an unfamiliar setting: quietness, caution, reticence to get involved, or, at times, curiosity, depending upon their nature and circumstances. But within a day or two, demure demeanors often gave way to more challenging behaviors as they became familiar with the setting and the routine. Conflicts over toys, unsafe or aggressive use of materials, testing of safety guidelines, and physical aggression toward classmates and adults were daily occurrences. This testing and less productive behavior, though, while exhausting to manage, we took as a backdoor complement. It meant that children felt safe enough to express the chaos and stress that characterized their lives.
In the early childhood field we often say that all behavior has meaning. For children who were leading such transient, unpredictable existence, it should have been no surprise to us to witness exhaustion, fear, confusion, defense, anger, and resiliency in them. They were drawing on whatever coping attributes they’d managed to construct in their very young lives.
More than anything, they needed to feel some sense of physical and emotional safety, and some predictability and routine. All children thrive on this — but children coming to the shelter had not experienced this — and many had experienced abuse.
So we tried to let safety, predictability, ritual, and play lead what we did in the classroom. We were feverishly working to build trust with each individual child and match our caregiving to whatever he or she presented. A tall order. But worth the effort.
Whenever a new child arrived, we bathed her, changed her clothing if supplies were available, took her picture with a polaroid camera, and started a care package for her eventual departure. It was always amazing to observe how many children relaxed after being cleaned up and given a new outfit.
We also worked to make the play area and equipment reflect what children were actually experiencing in their lives. In a previous post, I discussed the vital function that fantasy play has on children’s development. It’s especially critical here. If you buy that idea that play is the mechanism for coping with circumstances, then it’s important to provide the necessary setting and props for that purpose. In our classroom, it was common to see an extensive collection of coats, hats, purses and suit cases, materials allowing children to dramatize the constant travel and change pervading their lives.
We often entered fantasy play directly with children, not just in response to their overtures, but to build trust and to model coping skills for the circumstances suggested by the play. Some play reflected common popular themes, such as shopping, going to work, or superhero rescues, but it was also common to observe play episodes that included taxi and bus travel, court appearances, intense arguments, or hiding from police.
It was not unusual for a child to become upset enough to collapse in tears, strike classmates or teachers, tantrum, or topple equipment or materials. (On a lighter note, there was a time when a little boy mooned me in response to my request that he sit at the table to eat snack; he quickly pulled his shorts back up upon that request, so the situation was, thankfully, brief). When these especially troubling moments happened, though, we had the rocking chair for refuge. Set in the quiet area, this chair offered balm for both the child and the adult. The nestling, coupled with the gentle back and forth motion of that magical chair, made hard moments dissolve into soothing connections. It was the single-most important piece of furniture in that room.
It wasn’t unusual to see children show indications of delayed development, whether it be physical, cognitive, social, or emotional. We might notice that a 5 year old couldn’t identify basic colors, or a younger child was using language more typical of a toddler. Often, older preschoolers asked to be held or carried like a baby. But one of the most striking memories I have of this phenomenon was some children’s response to having their photograph taken. Many children did not recognize themselves in the picture when it was presented to them, asking, “Who is that?” This was troubling, because my training had taught me that in typical development, the milestone for self-recognition happens around 18 months of age. Experiments developed in the 1970s helped demonstrate this landmark by placing children before a mirror and watching their reaction. If it wasn’t readily clear that the child recognized himself, a dab of rouge was placed on his nose. Children who recognized themselves touched their fingers to their noses, often doing a double-take in the mirror, then looking down, looking up, and then looking down again — indicating the child’s understanding that this is not how he should look.
This prompted me to bring children to the mirror more often, to really encourage them to look at themselves and talk about their facial features. I encouraged much more mirror play after noting this pattern.
My deepest concern for the children probably centered on how the experience of being homeless affected their sense of self and identity — so core to everything human. On some level , I know that I was likely having limited impact on their lives. Yet I hoped that for a short time each of them had some experience of stability and care — a brief respite from stress they’d come to know.
I can say with certainty that this short experience impacted my teaching and my view of children and families. It taught me to slow down and try to think more in the moment (like children do … go figure). It reinforced my belief that a sense of self, and emotional intelligence are infinitely more important than all other areas of development. It reinforced my understanding of the true vulnerability of early childhood and the unfortunate realities of the great numbers of American families who still do not have access to affordable housing.
The other good fortune from this experience was working side by side with a gifted co-teacher, whose easygoing, delightful view of the world was such a wonderful model for me. She taught me the very simple yet magical statement, useful in so many instances, in our room, “Come sit here beside me and be my special friend.” She became a friend and a colleague. You can’t beat that for a valuable professional experience. Thanks, Benita.
To all the children who passed through the Playschool during that year-and-a-half, thank you. Thank you for making me a better teacher. You gave me much more than I gave you, I think. Thanks for teaching me about vulnerability and resiliency. I think of you often, and wonder where all of you are now.
I hope you are well.
Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice. They have no choice.
(Perry L. Botkin and Barry De Vorzon)