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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Building resilience through humor

Debra Vande Berg and Steve van Bockern

Redl and Wineman (1952) observed that the decision to use humor with a specific student or a specific situation has important therapeutic considerations. The best-intended humor can be misinterpreted because some disturbed children are so sensitive. Interactions with children must continually be evaluated as to the appropriate moment to interject humor as a “tension decontaminator” or face-saving mechanism. They contend that humor decontamination may work because it demonstrates that the adult shows himself to be so secure as to be unassailable by either the problem he is confronted with or the destructive impact of the child’s intention.

Janet Strayer, a seventh-grade science teacher, utilized humor as a tension-decontamination and face-saving tool in these situations:

At times I will prop myself up on my sturdy wooden desk during informal discussion or just talking. One day I was talking and listening when I hoisted myself up on to what I thought was my desk. It was actually a student desk – too small to support me. The next thing I saw was 28 gaping mouths and 56 bulging eyes staring down at me. I could see they didn’t know what to do or think. I said, “Okay, you can sure go ahead and laugh!” They did, and that was the end of an embarrassing situation for all of us.

At the beginning of another school year, a quiet boy had his desk fall completely over. He landed in the aisle. Since I had experience in desk sitting, I said, “Whoa, baby! You had a good thing going until that desk bucked you off. Climb back in and show it whose boss. With practice, you’ll still make it to the rodeo.” He laughed and the students laughed with him instead of at him.

Teachers, counselors, and other professional staff dealing with children should recognize that it is all right to laugh in school (Rogers, 1984). We spend too much time trying to “keep it down” when there is a real reason for allowing belly laughs to take place.

When children learn to find humor even in the problems of life, they will be able to laugh at their failures and shortcomings (Dolce, 1984). Vincent R. Rogers, professor of education at the University of Connecticut (1984), posits that good teachers share their own mistakes and teach children not to laugh at the mistakes and misfortunes of others. One teacher was able to model “nonhostile humor” (Martin, 1989). She found a way to encourage youngsters to learn the distinction between laughing at and laughing with someone – a useful social skill. Martin believes our interactions should provide a repertoire of coping strategies to assist children in adjusting to the demands of growing up. There are numerous examples of adults who do not model humor as a useful coping strategy:

While the high school teacher was away from his room, a student set the clock ahead ten minutes. At the “end” of the period the teacher dismissed the students only to find out that he had been “had.” Ignoring the school policy that parents were to be notified 24 hours in advance if their children were to be kept after school, he stomped around the school, barging into classrooms to inform all the students they would be spending an hour after school. Worried parents began calling the school when their children didn’t show up when expected. A school board meeting was held to discuss disciplinary action for the teacher. Students and teachers were angry at each other. The incident became the focus of debate for a week. How different things could have been if the teacher had announced the next day with a smile, “You really got me!”

Brenda L. Howat of the Behavior Adjustment Program in Winnipeg relates this incident which could have escalated into conflict, had the principal not understood the value of humor:

Jerry’s way with words could be powerfully insightful at times. Following a futile effort to help Jerry rethink his behavior after an outburst in the classroom, the principal, in desperation, asked him to sit in the medical room and take some quiet time to think about what he had done. Several minutes later, Jerry emerged and very calmly announced to the principal, “It’s okay now, Mr. Peterson. I’ve talked it over with God, and He has forgiven you.”

Teachers, counselors, and other professional staff dealing with children should recognize that it is all right to laugh in school (Rogers, 1984). We spend too much time trying to “keep it down” when there is a real reason for allowing belly laughs to take place.

William Glasser (1975) identified fun as a basic human need. As human beings we need to enjoy life. While it is worthwhile to think about the strategic merit of humor in the classroom, it is equally important simply to let humor find its way into our work. One of the author’s elementary teaching colleagues was the kind of person who brought joy into the daily grind.

Before the days when we worried about guns in the classroom, Larry T. and I, both sixth-grade teachers, had confiscated squirt guns from our students. They were to be returned at the end of the day. While I sat in my room during a free period working on the next hour’s lesson, Larry quietly came in and let loose with a volley of water. The battle was on! With his students in their seats, I walked down the center aisle and approached Larry’s desk. With my back to the students, I took out my squirt gun and let him have it. However, I knew Larry would be back. I waited at the door, out of sight, listening for the footsteps that had to come down the hallway. As the footsteps got closer, I jumped out in my best policeman pose and yelled, “Freeze, turkey!” It wasn’t Larry. One of the volunteer mothers looked at me quizzically but just kept walking and said, “Don’t worry, I’ve heard all about you.”

Since most of us are not comedians, how can we begin to make humor part of our teaching repertoire? Like many skills, begin with an attitude: I can find humor in everyday situations, and I can let it be part of my work. I can allow different flavors of humor as long as it isn’t hurtful. I can laugh with my students.

More specifically, make use of humorous literature. Bebe Willoughby (1987), children’s author and editor at Dell Delacourt Press, thinks that children feel better about themselves when they recognize themselves in a humorous situation that isn’t threatening. There are library resources that will point you to books that deal with youth problems in honest, realistic, and often humorous ways.

Some teachers make use of contemporary video as a way to Interject humor into their classrooms and as a means to talk about relationships, conflicts, and adolescent concerns. There are a ‘number of movies on video that deal directly with the world of education in humorous ways. The Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, Principal, Teacher, and Lean on Me are good places to start. Louie Anderson (1993), a nationally recognized comedian, has a wonderful book and accompanying cassette tape that provides insight into how his humor has been a means to gain acceptance and a vehicle to help him deal with his difficult childhood. Many of our class clowns may be using.


Anderson, L. (1993). Goodbye jumbo, hello cruel world. New York.

Dolce. R. (1984). Being a teacher of the behavior disordered, Education 105(2). 155—161.

Glasser. W. (1975). Schools without failure. New York: Harper and Row.

Martin. RA. (1989). Humor and the mastery of living: Using humor to cope with the daily stresses of growing up. Journal of Children in Contemporary Society 20(1-2). 135-154.

RedI. F. & Wineman. D. (1952). Controls from within. New York: Free Press.

Rogers. V. R. (1984). Laughing with children. Educational Leadership, 41(7). 46-50.

Willoughby. B. (1987). Humor tells the truth in children’s books. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries. 1(1), 57-64.

Vande Berg, D. & Van Bockern, S. (1995). Building Resilience through Humor. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol. 4 No.3. pp28-29

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