A music teacher friend recently shared her experience of working with a pupil who has Asperger's syndrome and struggles to manage his emotions at times. She described her surprise at the impact that using just one Clean question, What kind of ...?, had for this individual:
I first met Ben on his very first day at secondary school. He came running up the stairs in the music department from the choir part of the lesson to the instrumental part. Although I hadn’t yet been given any special educational needs details for him, I realised that he might have Asperger’s syndrome. He was quite distressed and agitated – I think he had been teased. He said he wanted to kick his bag, to rip up his timetable, to go home.
So, I said, ‘So what’s happening now, Ben?’
He answered, ‘I feel that no-one listens to me. No-one takes any notice of me.’
I repeated his words back to him and said, ‘I’m listening to you, now.’
That’s all I said, very slowly, as I looked at him. He stopped in his tracks and said, ‘Yes, but don’t you know I’m Aspergic, Miss?’, and I replied, ‘That’s OK.’
After the first week my Head of Department asked if I would be around to keep an eye on Ben during the choir lesson, to kind of befriend him; we have 60 kids at once and the teacher’s attention has to be on the group. I was told that he can suddenly ‘kick off’ in lessons and have quite outrageous outbursts - although I haven’t seen one yet.
Last week, when he arrived at the lesson he appeared to be very anxious. He told me he'd been given a smiley face for English and at break he'd tried to go to the learning support department, his safe space, to show them. But nobody was there. I asked him how he felt about this. He blurted out what was on his mind: ‘I felt sad. I was crying and on my own and I was lonely.’ I stood very still, very calm and very quiet – and I just listened. You could see that he was still sad; he had tears in his eyes.
I paused and asked this Clean question, ‘What kind of sad? – when you went to the learning support department and the teachers weren’t there, and you wanted to show them the smiley face that you got for English’ I acknowledged his words, his feeling of ‘sad’, and he said, ‘Just very sad. Very sad.’
I could have asked more questions. But once I’d acknowledged the fact that he felt sad, and didn’t try to push it away or dismiss it, he suddenly went, ‘I think I’m ready to go and get on with my lesson now, Miss.’ There was a kind of switch; the anxiety just went. I think that asking him, What kind of sad?’ made him feel heard. It was like saying, 'I hear that you’re sad Ben', but in a way that felt very natural. Once a person has their feelings acknowledged it seems to bring relief and relaxation in the body. He didn’t have to hold all that sadness in any more.
If I’d said, ‘Oh, don’t be sad', that wouldn’t have honoured how he was really feeling. I allowed him to be sad, and once that happened it was almost like, Oh I’m not really sad any more. His whole face changed. He was able to enter into the rest of the lesson beautifully, interacting with the other kids, inviting them to come and hear his music. He’s got a lot of musical gift and he’s never joined in much before, so it was really lovely to see.
Something happened in that gap of me not trying to make things better. And I thought, Well that’s magic!, because I didn’t actually do anything.