* Meltdown Control

In previous posts, I related Christopher’s difficulty managing strong feelings.  He now has a plan and remains in the rehearsal stage.  His plan starts with a brief review of his goals for self-control and maturity. Then he is given the following description of what to do.  I have added spacing between each word to improve his silent reading.

When   your   feelings   get   stronger   than  a   5,   you    will   take   this    book   to   a  quiet   place.      Read   your   plan.    Your   plan   will   help bring   your   feelings    back   to   a  5   or   less.    You   decide   which   of   the   following   activities   will    bring   your    feelings   under    control.    If   you   come   back   before   you   are   at   a level   5   or  less,   you    will    take   your   plan   and   try   again. 

The final 5 pages describe and show possible strategies.  Here’s a sample:

Do 20 jumping jacks.

Jumping jacks

His rehearsal includes knowing the designated quiet place, pretending to be upset, using his plan, and then repeating it as he pretends he’s not ready to rejoin the group.  Christopher was hilarious when we practiced last night.  When we started the rehearsal, I said, “You look like you’re past a level 5.”  With a gleam in his eyes and a jump for emphasis, Christopher answered, “I’m at a 10!”  Great job of roleplaying!


* Peer pressure

The ways kids influence one another are probably second only to teacher-student relationships in impacting the classroom community.  For better or worse.

Get your act together first.  You must set a positive tone for relationships in the class.   One common question in a teacher interview is:  “How would your students describe you?”  That is an important question to consider daily.  The best way I can discover how I’m REALLY doing is to videotape myself.  Even knowing I’m being filmed changes my behavior for the better.  It engages the self-monitoring part of my brain, something we hope to elicit in our students as well.  Give that a try if you are feeling perpetually grumpy or if you are always “putting out fires” in your class.  It is helpful to establish videotaping as a routine part of your class from the beginning, or you will have kids endlessly posturing for the camera.  You don’t actually have to be filming at first; just keep the camera and tripod visible.  Use a dark pen or tape to blot out the red recording light.  When the kids ask why you’re filming, tell them it’s so you can be a better teacher.  They won’t believe you for a moment but eventually the novelty will wear off.  And then you can use videotaping to change their behavior as well as yours.

Let’s take a look at ways to enhance peer relationships in the context of difficult students.  We’ll assume you have a fairly active class but one kid rises well above the rest.  We’ll call him Damon.  Damon is a pinball, ricocheting around the room unless you pin him to your side.  He has the attention span of an 18 month old.  You can count on him to both create and broadcast the news about any bodily functions, especially passing gas.  Although he can be quite funny, he also has a short fuse.  Even so, Damon is a leader of sorts.  He goes where no student has gone before, which attracts followers and admirers.  But many kids are wary of him because he’s so mercurial.  He doesn’t share materials, interrupts when others are speaking, and gets in trouble a lot.

Tip #1: Learn to love Damon. ( He would likely improve with a behavior contract but that’s another post.  On the assumption that he has just started his new contract, you can rightly assume that he wants to do well.)  Be deliberate in your interactions with him.  Ask yourself how many times you smile at him (not counting baring your teeth).  Monitor yourself  to improve your ratio of praise to correction.  Think of how he looked as a baby.  Cute, huh?  Focus on some traits you enjoy about him and share those with him:  You are such a fast runner at recess!  You always have something to contribute in group.  You really want to do well in 2nd grade.  You have a super smile.  You draw interesting pictures.  I like having you in my class.  You make me smile.

Tip #2: Don’t always pick Damon to be the class “whatever” in order to give him attention and supposedly build his self-esteem.  I know we were all taught that giving kids special jobs makes them feel special, but if that strategy were effective, you wouldn’t be struggling with him.  I would assume he knows why you always call on him first or ask him to distribute materials:  You are trying to get a step ahead of him; you are trying to change his behavior and he knows he’s falling short.   Use your regular class helper routines and don’t favor him.

Tip #3: Help Damon’s peers love him.  DON’T demonize him.  Ask the guidance counselor or family specialist (who probably both know him and his family by now) to take Damon out of the room for about 15 minutes.  Use that time to talk to the class about the “new” Damon.  Talk to them about his lovable traits.  Tell them some things you appreciate about him.  Tell them that he really, really, really, really wants to do well in school and that they can help him!  Yippee!

Sample script:  “You guys already help each other in so many ways.  Raise your hand if someone has helped you in this class.  Great!”  Damon’s classmates already know he needs some help, so you don’t emphasize his weaknesses.  Just list the goals he is trying to achieve: staying in his space, raising his hand, and saying appropriate things.

Sample script: “It’s so easy to laugh at some of the things he says and does, but that makes him do them again.  And then he’s in trouble because those aren’t appropriate for school.  Real friends help each other.  Real friends might give him a signal to raise his hand (demonstrate), even if he has blurted out.  Real friends might say,  Stay here with us, Damon.  Who can be a real friend to Damon?  In fact, you can all be great friends to each other.  I’ve already seen you do that.  Let’s practice helping someone stay in their seat.  Remember that you can say it one time, but after that, it’s the teacher’s job.  Otherwise, kids will feel that they are being bossed around.”  (You probably need to reemphasize the bossiness issue.)  Now you have set the stage for all the kids to help Damon AND each other.

Tip #4: Conduct regular class meetings.  You might want to read about how these meetings can be handled effectively if they’re not already a part of your repertoire.  Class meetings are a way for kids to develop a sense of community and create opportunities to discuss behaviors in a matter-of-fact way.  Establish your class meeting rules from the start, such as ‘say kind things about others’ and ‘listen to others.’  Common topics include what they’d like to learn in some subject area, what they thought about an assembly, how to help one another, or what’s hard about a subject at school.   You can keep some meetings short with simple thumbs up-thumbs down responses.   Class meetings are invaluable for making it OK to discuss behavior problems (and responses to passing gas.)  Don’t start with the latter topic, but you can take away the novelty and startle effect of misbehavior if it’s routinely reviewed.  These discussions shouldn’t be a guise for writing prompts or letters home.

It will be rewarding to watch Damon flourish with peer support.  And with that behavior contract in place.

* Moderate functioning kid with PDD #2

It took a team to transform Edward’s life.  Teamwork is usually the most crucial strategy for working with difficult kids.  As I noted in my previous post, I have not always “played well with others.”   In Edward’s case, our combined efforts had an amazing outcome.

I first observed Edward when he was in a preschool setting.  He had a diagnosis of autism.  I saw him running on the playground, flapping his hands, seemingly unaware of his classmates, and desperate to get on the swing.  I noticed that he continued circling around until the swing was available, then made a beeline for it and spent the duration of outdoor play enjoying the swing.  Edward’s mom was trying to decide between a self-contained classroom and mainstreaming into a regular kindergarten.  Edward was considered a fairly compliant kid, although he did have occasional tantrums, and his pre-academic skills were strong. I recommended mainstreaming and she agreed to give it a try.

Edward fit into kindergarten fairly well.  He did not seem to process verbal directions but followed the movement and flow of his classmates.  If everyone was on the carpet, he would be there too, on the edges.  He was able to speak but didn’t say anything without prompting.  Edward received services from a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, worked with me on social skills, and had a special education assistant assigned to his room.  And his classroom teacher was a jewel.  When I suggested visual cues, she had the charts out.  When I asked for preferential seating, he had his own spot at the front of the group.  Edward’s mom and I communicated through a daily notebook so she could follow up on school routines and vocabulary.  His mom always included a personal note in Edward’s lunchbox, which gave us the idea of using an index card to prompt communication with a peer at lunch.

Our biggest problem at this point was getting Edward to make eye contact with anyone.  We practiced with puppets and although he enjoyed it immensely, there was no carryover to real life.  His mother suggested that Edward learned best by watching TV, so I made some videotapes for him to watch at home.  His favorite puppet instructed Edward in eye contact and it worked!  After additional practice in social skills with kids and puppets, along with support from the assistant, Edward entered the world of social communication.  He was rigidly rule-oriented so the speech therapist and I taught him rules for conversations.  He learned to initiate eye contact, ask a question, and answer a question. Wow!

Before he entered kindergarten, first, and second grade, I spoke to each class about Edward’s special strengths, including his phenomenal memory for areas of interest.  Then I asked the kids to help support him in making friends, something he really wanted but found challenging.  The kids were always delighted to play a role in Edward’s success at school.  He had no shortage of invitations to birthday parties, as well.  I have used this strategy for a number of special needs students, in coordination with their parents.   The special needs kid is always conveniently out of the room during this interaction, by the way.

Edward made steady progress in most areas of school.  I wrote many social stories for him, including how to deal with his strong preferences for colors when they weren’t available or how to cope with not winning a game (he became quite competitive as he matured).  The biggest obstacle we faced was Edward’s inability to listen to the teacher during any large group activity.  He could listen in a small group or 1-on-1, but seemed almost deaf in a large group.  I tried social stories, role-playing, and videotaping.  No change.  By the end of first grade, I had borrowed a set of headphones from a hearing specialist and equipped the teacher with a microphone.  These rather old-fashioned tech tools enabled Edward to hear the teacher’s voice above the other sounds in the room.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to make a difference.  (And the teacher had the embarrassing experience of being “on” when she used the bathroom!)  Edward still had no idea what the teacher was saying.  I sat next to him, across from him, flashed cue cards telling him to listen- nothing helped.  His inability to process “teacher talk” was becoming a burden for his team, especially his mom.  He had to be retaught every topic and skill that was introduced in a whole class setting.

When Edward started second grade, he was still not able to process information in a large group.  I was concerned that he would look odd wearing headphones, so I borrowed ear buds instead.  Perhaps it was developmental growth or maybe the ear buds, but something finally clicked for Edward.  After a month or so, he could LISTEN!  Woohoo!

Edward continued to flourish in the regular classroom setting, eventually with no special ed assistant.  His mom was an amazing advocate for his needs in middle and high school.   Edward has just graduated from college.

* High functioning kids on the autism spectrum #1

Meet Charles.  He is a kindergarten student who moved here from another state with a preschool diagnosis and special education label of autism.  Times have changed, so if he arrived today, he might be labeled as having a pervasive developmental disorder.  Anyway, Charles was a challenge to his excellent teacher.  He ran up the slide while everyone else went down.  Literally and figuratively.  He had great academic skills but his social interactions were a disaster.  If he had been the only kid at any classroom center, things would have gone well.  Same for recess.  Charles was oblivious to social norms if they interfered with his personal goals.  If he saw something he wanted, he would take it.  He bit other kids if they objected to his claim of ownership.  As the year progressed and our social skills work made a dent, he dropped the physical contact and substituted trickery and threats to his repertoire.

Some people think that all kids with his disability don’t really care about making friends, but that isn’t true.  Charles wanted friends quite badly, no matter how often he failed.  He also wanted to please his teachers, no matter how often he failed.  My task, over the next 5 years, was to help Charles function successfully in school.  But school was a foreign land for Charles, with its own language and customs.

My first step was to develop a positive relationship with Charles.  You have a huge advantage with any difficult kid if this part comes naturally.  I found it easy to connect and empathize with this super smart kid and his deeply self-centered world  view.   It’s not that he was selfish; Charles simply saw everything through his lens and none other.  Charles was assigned to social skills groups for life.  I also set up a contract to reward pro-social behavior.  Charles’ parents were a great support for that effort, because I couldn’t find anything that Charles really wanted to earn at school.

As Charles began to decipher the social code, he continued to work it to his advantage.  Initially, he had to learn how to respond when other kids “pushed his buttons,” but after a while, Charles became masterful at getting others riled up.  When he wasn’t included in activities, he retaliated by teasing kids.   He translated any kind of attention into being cool, a first step towards friendship.  And then he discovered that most powerful of all weapons: pushing teachers’ buttons.  I worked tirelessly to keep up with his adaptations on the theme of being noticed and liked.  Our role plays shifted to the creation of his own plays; he became a director and had the opportunity to orchestrate others (although the kids took turns being director).  Our contracts shifted to appropriate interactions with teachers.  I was his safe haven in school, a part of his plan to cool off before rejoining the group.  In an effort to salvage his shrinking self-confidence (masked by sarcasm), I made him a tutor for a couple of my groups with younger students.  Charles absolutely flourished in that role.  It was a perfect strategy for him.  The helpful, tender side of this difficult kid could blossom as he listened to students read, became our tech specialist, and touched the hearts of little kids who needed a big buddy.  A slightly awkward big buddy.

Uh-oh, a personal/professional issue:  As I mentioned, Charles had become an expert at making annoying and sarcastic comments to his teachers.  There were some teachers who could help him save face, smile at his humor, and see the heart of a child who wanted to be accepted.  But there were others who took it as a personal challenge, a coup d’etat in their kingdom.  My bias is evident, I know.  I loved that kid and wanted everyone to see his humor, his shy smile, his gentleness.  I failed to maintain an effective working relationship with one of Charles’ teachers.  In my defense, I thought her sarcastic comments were hilarious, too.  As she recounted her interactions with Charles, I thought she was being funny.  In fact, she was livid.  Perhaps I worked so well with Charles because I share some of his idiosyncrasies and difficulties reading social cues.  It was not my finest professional moment, although I did work hard to repair our working relationship.  Ultimately, I concluded that I hadn’t been empathetic enough towards that teacher.  And I was reminded that everyone does not like me.  (Shocking, I know.)

Charles is a successful college student today, despite his sometimes disastrous navigation through elementary and middle school terrain.