Settling In, Chicken-Style

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Chickens Photos by Christy Hinko
Children, like chickens, need a few minutes to settle down. Above: Ethel, Margaret, Betty and Tori make the lawn furniture their perch. (Photo by Christy Hinko)

It’s a common refrain heard in classrooms and at dinner tables all across the country:

“Why won’t you just sit still?” Sometimes, with kids who seem especially hyperactive, there is an all-too-quick leap to giving the “problem” a psychiatric label and pulling out a prescription pad.

Although I’m a clinical social worker by training, I find that alternative sources of knowledge (what some may refer to as old-fashioned common sense) sometimes fit best. Here’s an example:

I recall a meeting with my colleagues regarding a newly formed after-school program for teenagers.

A shared frustration was getting things started on time. After some conversation, it became clear that the kids eventually settled down, but it always took more time than the
adults deemed necessary.

One of the women, my longtime colleague Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, an alcohol and substance abuse counselor and pastor, asked her colleagues, “Did any of you ever live on a farm?” They all signaled that they hadn’t. She smiled knowingly and responded, “Well, I did. And when you grow up on a farm you notice certain things.”

She went on to explain, “I’ve been watching closely, and in the afterschool program I’ve noticed certain behavior by a number of the youngsters each time they come to the group.

Whether they arrive early or after the group has already begun, they perform a certain ritual before connecting more consciously with what is going on in the group. It goes something like this: They move the chairs several times, place certain objects—coat, sweater, book bag—in a certain position on or near the chair, collect objects from their pockets or begin to crumple paper and place it in the waste basket, and so on. When confronted about their distracting behavior, they often reply, ‘OK, just one minute,’ meaning that they hadn’t quite completed their settling-in process.

“After weeks of observation, I was reminded that I had seen chickens perform similar rituals before laying eggs. I often wondered why they didn’t simply walk in, lay their eggs, and walk out. But instead, they would survey the nest, scratch and peck some more and sit down again. This behavior continued until they felt settled in. When the process was interrupted, I observed, they would start the ritual all over again. Now, I’m not suggesting that some youngsters are like chickens, but there seems to be a similarity in their need to release a certain amount of energy in order to focus on the task before them.”

Nellie’s “down home” observations captured the essence of the young people’s waking moments. The milling process seemed to be a normal resistance brought on by the daily residue of feelings either about home or school, perhaps intended to sidestep the work at hand.

For most kids, milling is a natural and normal process to be respected and left alone, as opposed to a manifestation of a disorder or some form of pathology. The kids eventually settled down and attended to task, as did the chickens.

This tale of the chickens had a soothing effect on Nellie’s colleagues, whose patience increased as a result.

What does this story about restless kids and chickens preparing to lay eggs mean? Sometime a kid is just a kid. That’s not to say that, for some, careful examination, diagnosis and specialized care are necessary and should be sought.

But for the others? Well, sometime they’re just being chickens. I mean kids.

Andrew Malekoff is the Executive Director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.

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