When the youngest Nelson Center residents arrive (ages 5-10), their most basic manners are generally in short supply. This goes beyond knowing to use your napkin and not your sleeve to wipe your mouth; but to the more basic “be thoughtful to others” kind of manners. Really it’s about saying “please,” “thank you,” “yes ma’am, no ma’am,” and knowing how to properly introduce yourself.
We often take for granted what we constantly hear preached, like on Sesame Street and by Barney the purple dinosaur: “Please and thank you, they’re called the magic words; if you want nice things to happen, they’re the words that should be heard!”
Our youngest residents have, at such an impressionable age, witnessed more violence and aggression than you can imagine, and often when visitors come to Nelson, they are surprised (and shocked!) by what our little ones have heard…and consequently repeat.
One of the big goals of the staff, teachers, and therapists, is to help the kids (especially the younger ones) develop positive social skills such as politeness, introductions, and patience. These seem like simple skills, but for the kids at Nelson, the opposite has been the prevailing example in their lives. Learning to trust visitors and new friends is often difficult, considering their past relationships.
In the school classrooms, when a visitor arrives, the kids are taught to stand, walk over to the visitor when prompted, and offer a friendly handshake along with their first name, age, and what grade they are in. It is a huge breakthrough when you see a group of young boys, often prone to anger, impulsive aggression, and cursing, to calmly introduce themselves with pride and confidence.
When I took a new volunteer to help out in the K-4th science and math classroom, the teacher had forewarned the boys they were going to have a special guest. When we arrived, the boys, with big grins on their faces, came over and shook the hand of the visitor, introducing themselves one-by-one. It seems simple, but to see them interact so sweetly with a new volunteer was such a reminder about the heart change that happens here.
Note: Rebekah Poling is director of volunteers at the Nelson Center