One thing that makes JRA unique is that we will take children with behavior problems. Not all of our kids have these issues, but they certainly don’t scare us. There is a culture of fear and blame circulating around these kids, one that is not helpful to anyone. If a teacher has a child in his class and the child is regularly out of control, administration may blame the teacher, accusing him of having poor classroom management. The end result of this blame is that the teacher does not feel he can ask for help because administration will penalize him.
But the parents get blamed too. They are the recipients of regular phone calls to come pick up their child, judgment-laden advice. and encouragement to medicate. Often the home environment is equally difficult, exacerbated by an unsuccessful school day, too much homework, and tired and discouraged family members.
And then there is the child. I can’t tell you how many prospective students march in my office ready to tell me what bad kids they are. “Go ahead, just call me stupid now,” one kindergartener demanded. A third grader regularly hit himself in the head, proclaiming, “I’m bad, I’m bad.” When children are punished for behavior that stems from sensory overload, academic problems, anxiety, food allergies, and lack of movement, they internalize the anger that is directed towards them.
So whose fault is it? How about we stop talking about behavior using a vocabulary of blame and shame and find helpful ways to discuss this? The Re-ED model of education talks about the child as part of an ecology, with home and school also a part. When a child regularly acts out, we expect the child to just change, not thinking about the fact that the child is the least in control. It is so much easier to tweak home and school and create an arena in which a child is ABLE to change.
At JRA, we believe behavior is communication. No child gets up in the morning determined to have a bad day. As the adults, we need to examine the clues they give us, figure out what is causing this behavior, and help the child find his way to wholeness and self-regulation.
When a child with behavior issues comes to JRA, we may start him off with his own personal adult. The first week is spent in a quiet, calm place with an encouraging, reassuring presence, helping the child learn the JRA culture and rules, easing him into the group with coaching and praise. She adds bonus points for every good thing she can catch him doing. The second week, he spends increasingly more time in the regular class, still with his calm coach by his side. All the while she is making notes about his reading ability, sensory responses, and frustration tolerance. Mr. Williams will get a dominance profile on him, checking to see what ear we need to talk towards, where in the classroom he’ll experience the most success, and what parts of him are likely to shut down when he’s stressed. Our speech/language person will check out his ability to use and understand language. Our reading specialist may assess his decoding and comprehension. We may ask for an OT eval, psych-ed testing, or consult with the professionals already working with the child.
And then we provide him with every service we can find that will help in his areas of stress. We have weighted blankets, wiggle cushions, em-waves, and fidgets. We’ll back up his academics to the point that we know he’ll be successful, and he may spend time with one of our highly-trained reading teachers. Knowing the Zones of Regulation can help a child be more aware of how he is feeling. Regular movement breaks may help. Mr. Harrison checks each classroom regularly, ready to take an unraveling child out to shoot baskets, play tetherball, swing, or jump on the trampoline before a meltdown occurs. The calm and return room is a safe place to chill on the beanbags, throw foam blocks, use a sensory bin, or sit with a reassuring adult. Taking time and space is not a punishment, nor is it a reward for bad behavior. It’s a strategy, and we want the child to learn to listen for his body’s signals that he need to use this strategy.
Often, “poorly behaved” children misinterpret social cues and what ensues looks like misbehavior or even bullying. We use Michelle Garcia Winter’s Social Thinking materials to teach and practice, and that language permeates the school day. We practice communication, taking others’ perspective, and keeping thoughts in our heads. What comes naturally to most of us is a huge effort for kids with executive functioning deficits and we need to be patient with them.
And last, if a child is having difficulties, it’s not all on the teacher. Others will step in and see what’s needed. We use a team approach, because what’s important is the child and not our egos. We spend part of each staff meeting talking about students who are struggling and coming up with a plan to help them.
Bottom line: it’s no one’s “fault.” Let’s stop using that language and start helping kids with behavioral symptoms.