What Happens When We Judge Children With Behavior Challenges

Today, I watched a child answer questions accurately, give great answers, generate a story — and all the while his shoes were off, and he was jumping out of his seat every three seconds, making silly faces. My position was to focus on and marvel at his ability to multitask and provide accuracy with some admiration. Other adults… did not seem to care as much about his accuracy or aptitude, but rather complained about his ability to sit and attend.

Don’t get me wrong, I think sitting is an important skill. But to me, it is clearly not a prerequisite for learning, intellect, or expression of thought. I believe sitting just makes us feel more comfortable and at ease, and it can allow people within a school setting to do their jobs more easily. The challenge is that not sitting, making silly faces, or other behavior issues people might consider “noncompliant” can carry the weight of gossiped negative reputation. The kind of reputation where people may not smile when you enter a room, they may not cheer you on, and you may be separated from other children in the classroom. Can you imagine walking into a learning environment daily where you face this type of judgment? Now imagine being a child carrying this weight at least six hours daily. In my experience, this is what happens often in classrooms, private therapy organizations and schools across the country.

Not fair, is it? To judge someone based upon what you hear, or even observe thirdhand, and then decide to treat them accordingly. This seems to be an unspoken truth at IEP meetings and within schools. It’s what we do often as adults, if we are not careful, to one another. So let’s not be super surprised that we impose this on children. Do I sound angry? Well, this is a particularly hot-button issue for me as a behavioral analyst. I will try to keep my emotions in check.

Honestly, you often get one chance to make a great impression. Children with autism can display certain behaviors that are deemed challenging. Sometimes aggressive. Sometimes brutally honest language. Sometimes a little bit of both. In my experience, oftentimes a child with autism and related behaviors makes one false move, and this may even carry him through elementary school. It’s not what is written as much as what is said between staff, staff to students, and within administration. A shameful truth. So where does this dilemma leave a parent? What is a parent to do? Here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Maintain a good running record of any incidents and documentation of such.

2. Understand and discuss the reinforcers being used within the school setting and support the team in creating items that are particular for the school environment, knowing that the reinforcer should adjust based upon the task and its challenge.

3. Create and enroll your child in activities that support their interests and feelings of accomplishment and camaraderie. This could include music, singing, Lego clubs, train clubs and more.

4. Ensure functional behavior assessments and/or analyses have and are being conducted. A full-day observation on more than one occasion would provide ample information about social interactions, antecedents to behavior. Also, include with this an evaluation of work task ease or difficulty, language provided during directions, and staff interviews (paraprofessionals, lunch staff, etc.).

5. Add a matrix to the behavior intervention plan. A matrix is the schedule and strategies of implementation of the actual plan across your child’s day. It is a large spreadsheet that displays each class by day, the providers, goals to be implemented, and specific strategies by each provider inclusive of time of day and class. Although lengthy to create, I have found the matrix to be most helpful when observing for implementation and program-planning purposes.

6. Schedule monthly matrix meetings. This supports the IEP and its implementation as an active, viable document to be followed and analyzed by each professional, along with the specific role they play.

7. Allow your child to feel all the feelings of happiness, sadness, frustration, joy, pride and honor — each one through taking the time to verbalize it with them and discuss the feeling states.

8. Maintain communication with the school and have targeted, non-IEP-based meetings with the director of special education to arrive at decisions and provide insight into program planning and how things are moving for your child. Oftentimes, this relationship can support better decisions for your child and those with similar profiles.

9. Consider exploring other educational options.

10. Attend professional development workshops and conferences to understand best practices within the fields of study in which your child receives services. This can arm you with better tools in IEP development collaboration, matrix planning and more.

Children are people with feelings and insight, sometimes unexpressed. When they are looked over, looked beyond, and not honored because of specific behaviors (learned, allowed, or not yet fully shaped), this level of reputation-following does not escape them. This can put parents in a challenging position of sending their children to an educational environment or therapy practice that has not found the love- or like-ability yet. I believe our job as practitioners is to not only find it, but be the people called to support families and help our clients be better about this.

Image via Thinkstock.

A version of this post originally appeared on Landria’s website.

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