Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
David Under the Desk
David was autistic. He had not talked to anyone for over two years -- not to his parents, his teachers or to other children. He had been in individual therapy and play therapy with a number of therapists over a year and a half without results. When he was referred to me for group therapy in the early 1970's, he was eight years old. David's parents were understandably quite concerned.
At the time David was referred, I had a group for boys seven to nine years of age who were working together to solve various personal problems. These boys came from several different schools. For their ages, they were the worst behavioral problems in the school district.
One boy had recently improved so much he had been able to "graduate," so there was an opening in the group. Because I am professionally trained to help groups be successful, I did not automatically add David to the group. I first asked for the group's permission. Since the other boys had to do the work of helping David, they needed to want him in the group and agree to help him.
I told the group that I knew of another boy who needed their help and asked if they wanted to let him join them. I did not tell them anything about David, so they did not know that he was autistic. The group was feeling rather powerful because of the recent success of the boy who had just graduated. They knew they had helped him. Now they were ready to help someone else. They said they wanted David to join their group the next week.
The following week, the seven boys began their group without David. He had not arrived on time. Perhaps he was not going to show up at all. The group started out helping one of the boys with his bed wetting problem and his fear of his father. They were well into the discussion when the door to my office was opened by our receptionist and David peered in. I walked over to David and invited him to join the boys in the circle. Noting that he was just going to stand there,, just inside the door, I returned to the circle of chairs and the boys working on helping one another.
David just stood there for a few seconds, examining the office. He saw the seven boys in the middle of the large room. He noticed the empty chair waiting for him. And he saw the boys talking with one another and glancing over at him.
Other than the chairs we were sitting on, there was only my desk in the spacious room. David came in, closed the door quietly, looked fearfully at the situation and then walked over to my desk in the corner — and crawled under it, curling up where my legs and feet would go.
A few of the boys shrugged their shoulders and went back to the lively discussion they were having about scary fathers. The others soon turned their attention from my desk back to the discussion aimed at helping one of the boys overcome the embarrassing problem of wetting his bed. Since I did not want to control the group (and create crippling dependency), I focused my attention on helping them function as a healthy group. I waited to see when they would turn their attention to David, who was quite safe under the desk and completely out of sight.
In the next ten minutes, all of the boys, one by one, turned to look at the desk where David was hiding. That was my cue that the group had changed its focus. Since my job was to help the group when it got stuck, I noticed that the boys were trying to discuss one thing while their minds were on something else – David under the desk. To help them focus their thoughts I said, "Looks like you guys are wondering about David under the desk."
Simultaneously, three of the boys looked at me and loudly exclaimed, "Yeah! What's he doing under the desk?"
To help them do their own thinking and learn to solve their own problems (and feel smart for a change), I merely replied, "Why do **you** think he is under the desk?" I didn't do the work for them. I gave the work back to the group. They were not surprised. I usually did nothing for them that they could do for themselves.
It didn't take long for these boys, with most serious behavioral problems in school, to decide as a group that David was under the desk because he was afraid of people. The silence that followed told me that they were stuck again and needed my help to proceed. I asked them, "So, how are you going to help David?"
Immediately, Charles, the bully in the group, yelled out, "Let's drag him out of there and beat him up!"
As funny as we might find such an inappropriate comment, the boys didn't find it funny at all. In fact, a couple of the more timid boys turned pale. I let the silence go on for what seemed like a long time, but was probably no more than 20 seconds. Looking at the boys whose faces had paled, I asked if they could tell Charles what the look on their faces meant. But they were too intimidated by the group bully to say anything. Looking at the others, I asked if anyone could help them out.
One of the physically stronger boys commented that to hurt David would only make him more afraid of people. The bully quickly denied this, saying, "No it won't! I beat people up at school all the time, and they're my friends after that."
Again the boys were verbally silent, but quite expressive in their body language. After looking at one another a few times, a number of them explained to Charles that those he beat up were not his friends. They were just afraid of him. Charles replied that they were friends because they smiled at him. The group explained that the kids merely smiled to keep him from beating them up -- they were definitely not his friends. Charles went suddenly silent and thoughtful. (Although Charles did not say anything more about it, three weeks later the school reported how surprised they were that all of his bullying behavior had stopped.)
Soon the group returned to the topic of how to help David, still silent and hiding under the desk. In time, with a great deal of back-and-forth discussion, they decided upon a plan, a plan that was far superior to any I could think of.
This group of seven, eight and nine-year-old boys, all with serious behavioral problems, all not Christians and without the Holy Spirit, decided that, one by one, they would join David under the desk (where legs go and fan out from there) at 30-second intervals. They told me to come last since I was the scariest. They strictly told each other not to talk to David or make him talk because it might scare him. They just wanted David to be better able to hear them at work and to know that they wanted him in their group.
When time was up for their hour-and-a-half session, the group adjourned. David was last to leave from under the desk. He silently joined his mother in the waiting room to go home.
The next week as he had the week before, David arrived about ten minutes late and was ushered into the room by the receptionist. Again he stood there and surveyed the room for a few minutes. He looked at the circle of boys talking in the middle of the room, and often glanced over at the desk under which he had climbed the last week. Then he made his decision and walked to the circle, sat in the empty chair, and said, "Hi.".
David had not talked to anyone in over two years. He never stopped talking.
If those 8 kids, struggling with severe emotional problems could be that powerful, think of how groups and teams you might lead can be empowered by skills you learn from this course.
Next, let's take a look at lessons about group and team leadership from this true account of David Under the Desk.
Copyright 2012 Dick Wulf, Colorado, USA