Book review: The Girl who Couldn’t Smile by Shane Dunphy

I just finished reading another awesome Shane Dunphy book.

This book is different from the others I’ve read as it’s not featuring his work in child protection but instead working in a preschool for developmentally disabled/ behaviorally disabled children.

The school is a new program branched off the developmental disability center Shane is working at. They’ve agreed to help Little Scamps Creche as staff seem to have lost control of the children and are at the end of their rope. The head of the main program at the center asks Shane to take on the project because of his years of working with children. He is skeptical but agrees.

The first day indeed is total chaos. Tush and Sue are the two staff who have been running things. Since the director left they’ve been going through possible staff very quickly as none will stay more than a week.

Shane’s first idea is to literally start fresh by repainting the walls. The children come in to find all the furniture and toys moved and are told that they’ll be redecorating. He hopes that if they paint the walls they will have a sense of pride in the place as before they thought nothing of kicking holes in the walls.

Tush and Sue are very skeptical but the children do manage to actually help paint the walls.

Shane then starts using story telling as a way into getting the children to find some common ground. The story of Peter Rabit seems to really capture their attention.

They end up having some deep discussions, especially for their age and developmental issues. With all the talk of kindness and the new activities, behaviors are hard to unlearn. Shane is particularly stumped on how to work with Tamy. She is a four year old in an alcoholic family. She does not talk but is quite intelligent and aware of everything that’s going and responds with huge dangerous rages.

No amount of coaxing will get her to talk. She grunts and responds with nonverbal gestures but that is all.

A former client of the developmental disability center and now worker Lonnie also joins in leading the preschool. Lonnie is a little person. He’s had more of his share of insults and takes the comments from the kids with a sense of humor but also quite seriously tells them that such behavior is hurtful and helps instell empathy.

He is very easy for the children to get along with and they quickly respect them.

Shane and the other staff quickly realize that Tamy comes in with no proper clothes for the weather. And the group lead by Shane does a lot of outdoor play nature adventures ETC. So they set aside some clothes for Tamy. They also notice that she is quite hungry and leaves the house with no breakfast. So they start to give all the ids breakfast. This is a good place to start the day and discuss anything on the kids minds.

The crèche starts to feel more like a family and as Shane grows closer to the children he is able to help them start to put some of their troubling behavior behind them and start to grow into their own positive selves.

Mitzi a girl who previously was quite physically hampered by being overweight and coped with life by eating a lot, by accident showed the others she had a ana amazing singing voice. She was able to express her musical talents rather than hiding away eating.

Other children started helping out the more vulnerable ones rather than targeting them.

There were many many ups and downs. And shane had trouble communicating with both Tamy’s and Milandra’s parents. Milandra was an extremely angry child. She wqas the only black child in the class. That put her in a position of feeling different. She had erected a hard wall around herself and desperately wanted to be loved/ included. But pushed everyone away. The staff threw a touching birthday party for her. Just as she was starting to take in the joy of such an occasion, her mind wouldn’t allow it and she threw a huge ragge lasting a couple hours and destroyed a thoughtful present from the staff.

As time passed though she became more and more kind and open. In the end part of her issue was cultural. Her father had grown up in poverty in Nigeria where you had to fight for everything you got and had instelled this violence in his daughter.

As for Tamy it seemed that she wasn’t all that wanted by either parent. Even when a child psychologist tested her and Milandra and found them both to be gifted it was hard for the parents to accept.

When she runs away into a real dangerous physically dangerous situation something breaks open inside her and she starts talking. Just like that. As if she’d been talking all her life when in truth neither her parents nor anyone else has heard her speak a word. From that climatic moment it was said she was chattering away at school. This new behavior was never actually illustrated in scenes at school which I feel would have made the book better. I also feel like it was very unrealistic that she just start talking normally when having never talked before.

In spite of all this I found the book as a whole beautiful. It very much reminded me of Torey Hayden’s books following her work with her special education classes. It’s clear that every person in that school staff and students was touched deeply by Shane’s work.

In the end it said that as Tamy grew up through she was educationally gifted/ intelligent, her tendency to run away when things got tough and to end up in trouble still flourished. This is sad but often is the case. With a child growing up with neglect and other early trauma such behavior is common.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone who has previously read any of Shane’s books. Anyone interested in psychology, special education or just a good story about children and adults coming together and changing each other for the better.

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