March 10 2016

How the Hulk was tamed

Boy who struggled with aggression responds to positive discipline

Gustavo used to be a difficult child. After his mother turned to the SOS Community Centre in Vargem Grande, Brazil, for help, she learned about the benefits of positive discipline as a response to her son’s violent outbursts. By changing her way of dealing with her child, she eventually changed her son’s life.

Gustavo* likes Hulk comic books. Just like the characters in his superhero stories, under emotional stress, ten-year-old Gustavo would unleash his inner monster and act wildly. Evoking his angry and powerful alter ego, the boy used to hit his classmates, toss toys against the wall, swear at his teacher, knock tables and chairs down… Every day, he returned home carrying a warning note from his teacher.
Over the past three years, Gustavo has been attending the SOS Community Centre in Vargem Grande, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in São Paulo. The centre works with 42 families and provides 107 children with attention and after-school activities, focusing on education, culture, health and sports.

Gustavo used to give his mother Iolanda* such a hard time that she was unable to do her job – producing handicrafts to sell – while her child was at home. Iolanda was afraid that her son, with his explosive temper, could get involved in fights in the streets. Finally, she sought help at the SOS Community Centre.

Vargem Grande is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in São Paulo. Photo: Danielle Pereira

When Gustavo first came to the centre, he brought his fantasy of the Hulk with him. In a fit of rage, he even broke a window once. Since coming to the centre, Gustavo has been under the care of Luciene Aparecida de Araújo, his SOS teacher.

“The boy was quite problematic. He wouldn’t interact with the other kids, wouldn’t get involved in the activities… Every time the others mocked him, he would get very angry and break things. What we tried to do was to hold him and prevent him from destroying things or hitting his classmates,” she says.

The Hulk is under control

After some time, Luciene realised that holding Gustavo down was not going to work. She received specialised training in de-escalating tension and positive discipline and soon realized how she could help Gustavo. The teacher started to encourage the boy to participate in activities. Whenever he was bullied, she intervened and stood by his side, showing everyone his best qualities. In this new environment, Gustavo blossomed and started to change his behaviour.

“He dances, sings, smiles... And the kids do not bully him. He always brings me flowers,” the teacher says proudly.

Hero in action

Every day, Iolanda picks Gustavo up from school and takes him to the Community Centre. Walking on the unpaved streets of Vargem Grande, they often stop to dodge from the dust kicked up by passing vehicles.

Suddenly, Gustavo picks a red flower from the bushes and offers it to his mother. With a bashful smile, Iolanda boasts: “He is a sweet boy. Today he is more attached to me, he likes hugging me…”

Over 100 children from Vargem Grande receive attention at the Community Centre each day. Photo: Danielle Pereira

Iolanda recalls how the staff in the Community Centre showed her different ways to interact with her son, instead of constantly punishing him for his bad behaviour. With the new techniques, Gustavo's behaviour at home improved too. “They said I should talk to him, explain to him that he should speak more softly, that he should not hit his classmates… to be patient, that not everything we want, we can get. He is really competitive. Earlier I was too strict,” Iolanda says. 

But there is still work to do. Gustavo faces learning difficulties. The 10-year-old cannot read or write very well. But now he counts on the support of his parents. Every night, his parents gather around the table and help him with his homework, reviewing letters he has problems learning.

Despite this difficulty, Luciene says that Gustavo often writes her and the rest of the staff touching letters. He is a different child now: “He is an example. I often tell his story because he changed so much in such a short time. And all this happened due to love and attention,” she says.
Kátia Aparecida Gomes, responsible for developing SOS family strengthening programmes in the region, says that Gustavo’s story highlights how important it is to work side by side with families that need basic guidance on how to raise their children: “His behaviour changed at home because here he learns to respect his classmates, he learns to solve conflicts, and he realizes that he is loved. So, when he goes home, he teaches his family those values.”

Now that his rage is under control, Gustavo can make plans for the future. Inspired by his favourite superheroes, the boy dreams of becoming a policeman, so he can “combat evil.” When his mother asks about the safety of this profession, he replies as if he were invincible: “There are tricks, Mom. You just need to hide. That way nobody kills you.” 

*Names were changed to protect the family’s privacy.

Read more about SOS Children's Villages' work in Brazil

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