The Nonconformist Wild Child. To Be Contained or Nurtured?


I must not laugh1
Photo by Mikaela Evans

A recent article in the New Republic by Elizabeth Weil “American Schools are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How: In Defense of the Wild Child” is of both personal and professional interest to me.

Elizabeth Weil went with her husband to her daughter’s second grade parent-teacher conference where they were informed by the teacher that their “nonconformist, transgressively funny and original” child, who they loved and adored, was being recommended for occupational therapy because she was a “distraction.”

I had this same type of shocking conversation at a preschool parent-teacher conference for my own nonconformist son.  His unique qualities and intensity were a challenge for the teacher. I learned this valuable lesson from my own humbling and frustrating experience as a parent of one of these ‘intense’ children.  I am a licensed clinical social worker and have been working with ‘challenging’ youth and families for over 20 years. You’d think I would have the education and experience to help my own child learn the social and emotional skills he will need in life.

Teachers are pressured to pack in curricula and raise test scores, and the nonconformist ‘wild child’ disrupts these lesson plans as well as other students’ ability to concentrate.  When a few of the students in  class  monopolize the teacher’s valuable attention and energy, it is no wonder teachers recommend that children learn ‘self-regulation’ skills or get prescribed a pill that helps them stay in their seat. This shift into self-regulation takes the focus off the overtaxed and underfunded school systems and places the blame squarely on the children.

The most significant question posed in this article, that summarizes the problems raised by children who behave outside of normal  classroom etiquette, is quite simple: is individuality or being a nonconformist to be contained or nurtured?

This question is posed as an either/or option, but I believe a child’s individuality needs to be both nurtured and contained.  When a child’s ‘individuality’ is expressed or manifests in behaviors that impose, distract, or are hurtful to a group process then it is the adults’ responsibility to ‘contain’ those behaviors for the safety of the group.  How an adult ‘contains’ or responds to behaviors is crucial; Children are hardwired to learn from their interactions with significant adults including parents, teachers, coaches, etc.

where the wild things are
Scene from Where The Wild Things Are

(To see this in action take a look at Tronick’s Still Face video.)

Whether adults are conscious of it or not, their immediate response to a child’s behavior gives instant feedback to the child’s developing brain about what just happened.  For example, a common and culturally accepted adult response to unwanted behavior is to express anger, frustration, and disappointment. Negative responses exacerbate the problem because it engages a child’s fight or flight response, interrupting the rational part of their brain and making behavior interventions ineffectual. But pointing the finger at these kids, proclaiming them defective in some way is doing just as much harm, if not more. Weil recognizes the damaging impact these attempts to ‘fix’ our children can have:

The saddest, most soul-crushing thing is the negative self-image. We think kids don’t understand what’s happening, but they do. There’s this quiet reinforcement that something is wrong with them. That’s the thing that’ll kill.

The conventional strategies we tried only seemed to make his behaviors worse. Eventually, I came across Howard Glasser’s book, Transforming the Difficult Child; which confirmed my own belief that traditional discipline strategies don’t work with intense children because they accidentally reward e problems  and/or negative behaviors with adult interaction and emotional intensity.

I learned that even our subtle reactions to our son’s behaviors had the most powerful influence in how he learned new behaviors and developed habits.

Having had immediate and significant success with my son, I started using simple, quality-focused discipline with the children and families I worked with at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston; where I worked as the Clinical Director of Social Work Services for ten years. The major ideas behind this approach included relentlessly honoring the positive and always responding to broken rules with immediate, brief, and mild consequences.  I was able to have incredible success with even the most difficult children and youth that other agencies or professionals were unable to reach.  I went to Arizona to get more training from Glasser and discovered that his approach is being used in hundreds of schools across the country, as well as internationally.  Teachers and schools have found these strategies not only transform difficult children, but help the typical child flourish because they affirm and encourage individuality, while also containing it.

There has been a great deal of research in the last 10-20 years about how the brain works and develops.  MRI technology has given us incredible insights and knowledge about how children learn.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center of the Developing Child at Harvard and co-author of the ground breaking book Neuron’s to Neighborhoods states:

“The most important dimension of the environment that influences how children develop competencies is the quality of the relationships that they have with important people in their lives. So whether it’s a child learning some particular task, mastering some skill, or developing abilities to regulate their own emotions, all of that happens in the context of relationships.”

circletimeScience is proving what the great teachers have intuitively known all along, that adults are able to direct interactions and emotional responses to develop positive behaviors, create habits, and develop competencies that build character strengths.

We can teach specific character strengths like perseverance and optimism that helps children be successful in life.  This can literally transform education when we realize that this hidden curriculum is all about the quality of the adult/child relationship.

With some practice and self-discipline ( teachers and parents can nurture the nonconformist student’s unique strengths and intensity as well as teach the critical life skills of how to be an accepted part of a group.  The formula is simple but not always easy to do:

a) Relentlessly energize the numerous positive behaviors that happen throughout the day with the detail and emotional response usually given to the problems and negative behaviors.

b) Enforce the rules consistently with brief and mild consequences.

c) Give immediate consequences without any big reactions, negativity, lectures, explanation, shame etc. that typically escalate the situation and children don’t listen to anyway.


Sam HealySam Healy (LICSW)  has been working with youth and families in Boston and Cambridge for over 20 years. As the Director of Corps Support & Education at City Year, he helped launch the City Year National Program.  For ten years Sam was the Clinical Director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston overseeing social work services in the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Roxbury, Dorchester, Charlestown, and South Boston. He was featured  in the PBS special, Raising Cain: Exploring the Inner Lives of America’s Boys as for positively impacting the lives of boys in Chelsea, MA. For the last three years Sam has been the Sr. Director of Child & Family Services at the East End House in Cambridge, a multi-service agency where he managed early education classrooms, three after school programs, parenting workshops, elderly programming and other vital community services.  In private practice, Sam currently focuses on teaching families, school systems and other professionals how to help all children (and adults) reach their highest potential.