Twelve-year-old Michael is in Grade 6 at a local primary school. He came to Australia from Kenya when he was five and he lives with his mother, two younger sisters and two older brothers. Since arriving in Australia, Michael has lived in five houses and attended two primary schools.
It is week three of Term 1, and Michael is involved in an altercation at the start of the school day. A boy tells Michael he can’t play footy and he should go back to where he came from. Michael gets angry, pushes the boy hard and the boy pushes him back. A teacher sees what happens and sends the boys to the principal’s office.
The principal asks them what happened and they tell her they pushed each other while playing footy. She reminds them fighting isn’t allowed at school and that they’re lucky to attend such a good school. As punishment, she bans them from lunchtime sport for a week, adding that she is seriously considering whether this is the right school for them.
Michael goes to his Grade 6 classroom. He’s hungry because, due to being sent to the principal, he missed out on the breakfast program he usually attends. He is also angry that the principal didn’t understand why he pushed the other boy.
Michael doesn’t know his teacher Ms Wendell very well yet, but he thinks she might be a good teacher: she always smiles at him and she reads Harry Potter aloud to the class. Michael loves imaginative stories and wants to be a good writer one day.
This morning, as a warm-up activity, Ms Wendell asks the students to stand while she takes them through a series of yoga-like stretches and breathing exercises. The student next to Michael stretches out and bumps him. Ms Wendell doesn’t notice this, but she sees Michael’s reaction: he shouts angrily and pushes the boy away. She asks Michael to calm down, but he doesn’t appear to listen. Still shouting, Michael shoves his chair over and charges out of the room.
Ms Wendell is confused about what happened. She asks the other students and they shrug and say, ‘He’s just like that.’ She decides to send a student to go and get another staff member to help find Michael.
The assistant principal goes looking for Michael and finds him in the boys’ toilet. He tells Michael that he must go back to class or he will call his mother to come and get him. He reminds Michael there will be consequences for his actions. Michael goes back to class, but he’s worried about the punishment he might receive from Ms Wendell.
When Michael appears at the classroom door, Ms Wendell looks up and smiles. She walks over to him and quietly says, ‘I’m really glad you’re back. Could you come and sit over here near me?’ Michael quietly sits next to his teacher and starts on the Maths worksheet the other students are completing.
The bell goes for recess and Ms Wendell asks Michael to stay back for a few minutes. She enquires if he knows why he got so angry during the stretches, but Michael doesn’t know what to say. She asks whether he feels angry sometimes and he nods. Ms Wendell tells him the student he pushed in class was frightened by what happened. She questions him about how he could make that student feel better and Michael shrugs. Ms Wendell asks him if he is willing to apologise to the student after recess. Michael says he is and she allows him to go out and play.
During recess, Ms Wendell has a brief chat with the wellbeing coordinator. They plan to meet later to discuss Michael and formulate strategies to help him manage his anger. the wellbeing coordinator is aware Michael arrived in Australia as a refugee and that his family have been through a lot. She suggests they consider a referral to Foundation House as one way of supporting him.
By Term 2, Michael has built a trusting relationship with Ms Wendell. After some gentle persuasion, Michael’s mother gives permission for Michael to see a Foundation House counsellor advocate at school. The consumer advocate, the classroom teacher and Michael work together to find ways in which Michael can feel safer in the classroom, and strategies to help him calm down if he feels overwhelmed. Importantly, he feels that his teacher is on his side. He trusts her and can tell her if he experiences racism or other problems at school.
Michael continues to enjoy learning to write, and one of his stories is published in the school newsletter. Michael feels proud. Despite his progress, however, Ms Wendell is concerned about how Michael will transition into secondary school and she considers what the school can do to support him.