Little things like rain on his walk to school, a teacher nagging him about homework or a classmate knocking a pencil off his desk used to be enough to set Ahmed Gulzar off. He would yell at his teacher, his classmates – anyone within earshot – throw a book across the room and storm out.
Ahmed rarely made it through the first 20 minutes of class without losing his temper and getting kicked out and sent to the office.
Just over a year ago, Ahmed, a student at R.H. King Academy in Toronto, was among the first Canadian students to participate in a U.S. drop-out prevention program, Reconnecting Youth (RY). The Canadian version of the program puts special emphasis on mood control and has been life-changing for kids like Ahmed, 16.
It was Ed Schild, the executive director of a Toronto-based non-profit called Regesh Family and Child Services, who imported the program to Canada. It has had remarkable success with American students, including a 20-per-cent jump in grades and a 60-per-cent reduction in hard drug use. Mr. Schild, an Orthodox Jew who is certified in anger management, liked the emphasis on mood control and decided to focus on that part of the program.
After working with troubled youth for nearly 30 years, he has found that the kids who skip class, disrespect their teachers and drop out of school have something in common.
"These kids are angry," he said. "Really angry."
The Canadian program is built on the same ideas as the American one – self-esteem, decision-making and managing emotions – but makes emotional control the central thread that runs through the entire semester. And here it is taught by social workers rather than teachers.
The idea is that social workers are better equipped to deal with the bitterness and anger of teens like Jesse Roper, who lost his father about two years ago. The way Jesse describes it, since his dad died of a heart attack, he has had a hard time letting things go.
When a teacher tells him to get to class or a friend makes a joke, the 15-year-old's first instinct has been to feel insulted and to lash out.
Jesse is two months into the semester-long RY course, part of a group of 10 other students that instructor Farah Heron says has been her most challenging to date.
"Few of them realize that their anger is an issue," she said. "But for most of them, it's the biggest thing holding them back."
Over the course of the semester, Ms. Heron teaches the students a five-step process for controlling their emotions. The first step – the one that matters most and the one most difficult to impart to an impulse-driven young adult – is to stop before acting out.
"We spend a lot of time on that," she said. "Kids aren't aren't taught how to control their emotions in any other part of high school. They've never thought of moods as something they can control."
The students wear elastic bracelets to serve as reminders to stop and think whenever they feel their anger flare. They're taught attention techniques to keep them calm and focused in the classroom. And they're given assignments designed to take them outside their own heads, to help them see others' points of view.
It was one of those assignments that helped change Ahmed's outlook. After being picked on in middle school – ordered around, taunted and told to carry out orders for older boys – he entered Grade 9 determined to be intimidating. He snapped at kids who brushed past him in the hallway and skipped half his classes.
"I walked around like I owned the school," he said.
The assignment was to submit two questions on paper to the teacher whose class he was most likely to fail: What's my grade in this class? And what can I do to improve it?
Ahmed said he put off the assignment until the last moment, then "practically threw it" at his civics teacher.
"I told her, 'Just write what you have to and then sign it.'"
The teacher did, and that afternoon, alone by his locker, Ahmed read her comments.
"I thought she'd say all sorts of negative things about me, but all she did was suggest I submit my homework once in a while," he said. "I was like: Oh my God, I'm such a dick."
Some teachers are more supportive of RY than others. Of the two vice-principals at R.H. King, Andaluza Nagy, who serves the more than 600 students with surnames that start with M through Z, is a champion of the program. The other vice-principal, Mary Burtch, who serves A through L, believes the students would be better off collecting credits in regular stream programs.
"The scheduling can be a nightmare and the students can end up missing required courses," said Ms. Nagy.
The Canadian program is only a pilot. Mr. Schild won just less than $1-million in federal funding from Public Safety Canada to introduce the program at three schools, and the funding will run out in June of next year. The sample size is small – about 180 students have participated in the program so far – but he's collecting data that show the Canadian program is matching, possibly even exceeding, the positive numbers produced in the United States.
"RY has become more than we ever imagined," Mr. Schild said. "These kids' lives have been turned around."
Jesse still struggles to keep from lashing out at his friends and teachers, but his grades are up and for the first time in the two years since his dad died, he's going to class.
Ahmed is making fewer trips to the office. The school's front-office receptionist, Shelley Chapman, said that before the program she found him to be irritating and disrespectful.
"He's just matured," Ms. Chapman said. "He's still goofy, but he talks to you like he cares."