Behavior as a Stress Reaction

image of a child completely tucked into an orange body sock, no head or arm or leg visible.
student response to looking at their daily schedule

Summer is coming to an end, which means that all of my preschool babies are getting tired. It’s a long school year when you’re 3 or 4 years old. They are so absolutely ready to swim and splash and have their days in the sun. Add transitions and life events and medical issues, and there’s been some visible signs of stress showing up in our day-to-day routines. Work avoidance. Difficulty sharing. Words that won’t come out right. And a million other little ways that they say: “I am done. D. O. N. E. Done.”

I myself have been under a larger amount of stress than is typical this year. I’ve been sick. I’ve had surgery. I’ve had a larger caseload than typical. Graduate school. Financial stress due to those medical bills and graduate school. One child leaving elementary school, one child in her last year of middle school.

My family sees the impacts.

Conversations of more than 3-4 exchanges — not happening. It’s not just that I cannot participate, but I don’t even want to be around them. It’s too much at once. I have reverted to having the vast majority of my longer conversations with my husband via text message, even when we are in the same room. Sensory input that I could typically ignore, like someone patting their legs or singing under their breath sounds like it’s on volume 200. I’ve eaten the same food for dinner for 4-5 nights in a row. My screen time? Way up!

There’s a couple of take-aways… It would be really easy to see me walking away from a conversation or asking people to stop talking as being mean or rude. At best, someone might think I’m lacking some skill or another. Maybe they would see my screen time use and think that I’m a disengaged parent. Basically: there’s a lot of judgements that people could make, and none of them would be right.

Because — none of the above. It’s a stress response. My tank is full. My tank is over-filling. All the neurons and skills that I had for coping with life’s bumps (such as too much sensory input) in more “acceptable” ways are gone. And so I revert to this. Younger children or people under more stress may revert to other things: hitting, screaming, scratching, falling on the floor, and so on.

The other piece: this happens at home. It doesn’t happen during my school day. It doesn’t happen when I’m in a super important meeting with a parent. It happens at home. That doesn’t mean that I’m “doing it on purpose” or that I could just pull it together. And how many times have we thought or said something like that? But the space we have for coping skills is always in flux, sometimes more, sometimes less. And sometimes we choose to use up more of our skills in one place, knowing our safe place will be there for us when our tank is empty.

I get that this is easy to forget. It’s not exactly something our culture prioritizes. But doesn’t it make all the difference?

I think of a student who may disembark the bus screaming. If we focus on “quiet mouth” (ugh!), what do we miss? What if they’re simply hungry and have no way to tell us? What about the student who falls on the floor every time someone comes near them? Do we just enter their space anyways? What if their sensory system is so on fire that the possibility of any sort of imminent touch is sending signals of pain through their body? We are so much better able to support these students if we look to minimize their stressors and support their over-flowing systems.

It comes down to this — can we just remember that our kids are doing the best that they can? Because I think that would change everything else we do, from the tones that we use to the plans that we make.

My own safe space is home. I see in my family the kind of classroom that I want to have. I see in my husband the kind of teacher that I want to be.

Flexible.

Kind.

Accommodating.

And always, always recognizing that I am doing my best.

Can’t we give our kids that same benefit of the doubt?

We don’t need to get physical.

white background with black text reading "no means no"... the o is a red "not" sign.
Bear with me, because what I am about to say cause you to feel defensive or want to click away. Please keep reading.

We overuse physical prompts and support in special education, and we are setting up our students to be hurt in their lives.

Whatttttt? Hurt?

Yes. Hurt.

One in three children who receive special education services are victims of neglect, physical abuse, or sexual abuse — compared to one in 10 non-disabled peers. They are 3.44 times more likely to be the victim of abuse compared to children without disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000). 3.44 times! And it is likely that these are underestimates, as children with disabilities may have difficulty reporting (or having their reports believed).

How does physical prompting play into this?

We are teaching our students that it is okay for someone to manipulate their body. We often teach something even more significant — that they cannot say no. When they fall on the floor and we force them up, we are teaching them that they cannot say no. When we force their hands under the running water in the sink, we are teaching them that they cannot say no. When they say “cookie” but we make them say “eat”, we are teaching them that they cannot say no and that their voice doesn’t matter.

I know it’s not the intention. But it is the impact.

I get it. I’ve made this mistake in the past. I’ve had moments that make me cringe as I’ve grown and matured in my understanding of teaching and supporting the kids I so adore. We think that we’re helping. We’re taught this in graduate school. We’re taught this by our children’s therapists. We didn’t know.

Now we do — and now we can do better.

It is possible, I promise. I teach ten preschoolers with disabilities every day with minimal physical prompting. I parent two children with disabilities every day with minimal physical prompting. It’s a journey, but it’s a journey that is absolutely worth it as you teach some of the most important life lessons: autonomy and consent.

How do we start?

Start by noticing. Notice the little ways that you use touch throughout the day. Notice when your child or student might be pulling away. Notice when you accidentally speak over instead of working with. It’s not about shame. It’s about mindfulness. It’s about noticing the ways that we, too, have been indoctrinated by a culture that expects compliance from children (and especially from children with disabilities). Notice when your hands begin to move before your brain even notices.

And then start to do things differently. Below are some steps to moving away from physical prompts and towards a different way of interacting. Your children and students will appreciate the respect for their individuality. They will thrive on having their voice heard and recognized. And you will uncover so much more learning, so much more personality, so much more of THEM when you take the chance to step back. I think you’ll like the change.

Ask yourself: what is this child communicating to me?

  • This is too easy / hard / boring.
  • I am not ready / I need more time / I need a break from this.
  • I don’t understand the expectation.
  • I don’t feel well.

When we find the same scenario popping up multiple times a day or week, we need to do some problem solving with the child or student. We can often minimize the need for prompting when we determine what the child is communicating through their actions, whether it’s disengaging from an activity or refusing a transition. There’s always a reason. When we address the reason, we often find that our students no longer need to complain or protest with their bodies.

Ask yourself: is this necessary?

It’s amazing how many times we think we need to do more — but we don’t. I think here about the student who has exercised their right to protest by laying on the floor instead of transitioning. The instinct by most is to pick this student up and force them to walk to the next location. But why? Are they being hurt? Are they hurting someone else? Is there absolutely no way to create safety by relocating peers / furniture / adults? That is the only time where I find it absolutely necessary to intervene in some sort of physical way (such as blocking a student from hitting themselves in the head). There’s a dozen other ways to respond — first and foremost, wait.

Yep, wait. We can wait for our students to re-regulate, offering supports or strategies for regulation when appropriate. We can make sure we stay regulated! And then address the situation together. Maybe we use one of the strategies below. Maybe we all just needed to offer more time to regulate. Maybe we can talk through it together when we are both calm and regulated, such as reminding a student that we take the bus to see mama.

Offer choices.

We all want choices in our lives. We all want to feel in control. There’s a difference between a lunch someone orders for you, and a lunch that you choose for yourself. Going to a party because you want to, or because someone else dragged you. Think of all the choices that you make on a daily basis. Think about the number of real, meaningful choices that your students or child gets to make on a daily basis. It’s often pretty insignificant. We need to offer more choices all day long. But we especially need to offer more choices before activities that have frequently served as triggers in the past.

An example: I once had a student who disliked the transition to the bus. It’s a hard transition. There’s a lot happening, and the bus ride can feel very long when all you want is your mama. We’ve struggled with making it out the door in the past. We didn’t really know what to do. We didn’t want to force him through the door, even if it was just through an adult holding each hand. It’s a bit much. But we also know that he needed to be on the bus and that, for once, there was a time limit. We can’t wait for the bus for 45 minutes. You’d be amazed at the simple solution that made all the difference: asking this student if he would like to wear his backpack, carry his backpack, or have help with his backpack. This small choice gave him a sense of control. It also meant that he could tell us what his sensory system could handle each day. Some days the feel of the heavy backpack helped him feel grounded. Other days, it was just too much. That tiny change has meant no tears and eagerly hurrying to get to the bus (and eventually mama).

Moral of the story: notice where you can offer choices, instead of telling what to do, how to do, when to do. Don’t be afraid about sharing control with your students. It’s often one of those antithetical ideas: the more you give away, the more you have.

Use other prompts.

There is a whole TON of other prompts available for teaching. We can use facial expressions, such as the “expectant waiting” face. We can talk to students. We can ask questions. We can give directions. We can show pictures. We can use video. We can point to different elements. We can use pointers and lasers and visual cover-ups. We can do it ourselves while they watch. We can start the process and then hand it over to them. Basically: don’t forget about all the other prompts that are available to you. Physical prompting is fast and it is easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s best. It’s rarely best.

Use assistive technology.

We are so lucky to live and teach in the 21st century. There are so many ways to accommodate our students. The one that most often comes to mind is the use of visual supports. We can use visuals to show each step of the process to complete an activity. We can use visuals to tell students what is happening, when it is happening, and where it is happening. We can use video to capture students doing the task, or showing their peers doing the task.

We can also use accommodations to create alternatives to the task, or modifying the task in some way. If a student regularly needs physical prompting to pull up their pants, maybe a different style of pants is going to allow them to be independent. If a student has difficulty locating a button on their talker, maybe a keyguard or even just a little sticker on the screen protector will guide them. If a student cannot touch one item at a time to count with cars and blocks, maybe they practice their counting with touch screens or focus on subitizing. This is an opportunity for endless creativity — and teamwork. Call on your instructional assistants, assistive tech teams, and related service providers! It’s amazing what we can come up with when we work together.

Emphasize consent. 

Always, always remember that a student has a right to say no.

There are still times when we use physical prompting in our class, primarily when teaching a new motor skill. Please remember that many — most — students do not need that physical support even with these skills. But some students struggle significantly with apraxia or other motor difficulties that benefit from some support. I think about my daughter, who benefits from physical support to find words on her talker the first few times she tries them. She cannot see the words very clearly, nor can she see our modeling. She needs us to show her.

But we do so cautiously. We ask — “Can I help you?” Yes, I literally ask my daughter this. I ask my students this. I give them the chance to give consent, or to say no. Even if they cannot verbalize consent, I hold my hand out without grabbing them. Do they put their hand on mine? Do they pull away? And they always should be allowed to pull away.

If they agree to have support, then I offer that support by hand-under-hand. It’s less intrusive, because they can more easily pull away at any moment. Because that’s the thing about consent — it’s an ongoing process. It’s not one and done. By placing my hand under theirs, it is easy for them to pull up and away. It is easy for them to decide to hit a different button on their talker. And they always should be allowed to.

(I know I sound like a skipping CD, stuck on repeat. But it’s a lesson that simply isn’t emphasized enough for our kids, and one that needs to be drilled into our heads. They are allowed to say no. They are allowed to refuse. They are allowed to pull away, walk away, however they convey the idea of NO. They are allowed to say no.)

I think of it as if I was taking lessons to swing a golf club. The trainer may assist me by providing physical support to feel what a swing should be. But notice: the trainer is going to ask me if they can support me. And if I decide, mid-swing, this isn’t working for me and walk away — they are going to let me. The trainer is not going to chase me around the golf course, trying to grab my hands and arms. It sounds ridiculous, yet so often we do exactly that.

Really, though, that’s what it comes down to… How would we want to be taught? What would we want for our own children, or for ourselves? We are caretakers of our children and our student’s trust. We must continuously live up to that. This is one of the most important ways.

 

 

Sullivan, P. & Knutson, J. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24 (10), 1257-1273.

Switch It Up: Meet Kids’ Needs to Solve “Behaviors”

We’ve had a couple of little “problem behaviors” pop up that have occurred across multiple students pop up in my class. Going into closets. Climbing on the counters. Dumping everything in the toilet. The instinct from grown-ups tends to be that whole “no means no” — repeat, day after day, ad nauseam. And we say, “Why aren’t they getting it?”

But we can look at it another way — these behaviors are the best tools that the students currently have to meet their needs. These students are telling us: I don’t yet have the skills to handle this exact situation on my own. I need supports; I need instruction. If we want the behaviors to cease, we can’t just say no. We need to create environments that support students to use the skills they have, while we teach the skills they don’t.

So that’s what we did this week.

Photo Mar 19, 2 51 48 PM (1)Situation 1: Climbing on the Counter

Above the counter are shelves — filled with all the things that we don’t allow free access to. Not because we are controlling and keep a “sanitized environment”, but things like Cheerios, Cheetos, glue, scissors… Things that just can’t be free access. They also tend to be things our preschoolers really, really want. Thus the climbing on the counter. All of our students have a way to ask for help or ask for those items. But in the moment, the impulse control, attention shift, and emerging communication skills just don’t line up for them to do so. Because they’re in preschool.

We added a Big Mac switch to the counter that says “I need help”. It’s LOUD. It’s easy — even our most emergent communicators can use it. Just leaning in to the counter as they think about climbing it often activates it, so that they can quickly learn the association. It also serves as a big visual support — a “STOP AND THINK” kind of moment. And it worked. Within just a few hours, multiple students were running to the button, asking for help, and then telling us what they need when we brought their talkers to them. Climbing fell off dramatically — and fast. So much faster than any “no means no” instruction could have done. Because we met the students need.

 

Situation #2 – Potty!

The toilet is a tempting playground. My own son went through the same phase; we hadPhoto Mar 19, 2 49 18 PM to call the plumber multiple times for all the things that were flushed down the toilet. It doesn’t matter that we have lots of sensory fun available throughout the room. It’s the TOILET. It flushes! It’s loud! It makes noise! The best way to help our students stay out of trouble is to help them stay out of the toilet.

We also have students who are just recently potty trained, who need to be able to run to the bathroom and gain access quickly. We needed to balance all of the competing needs.

Enter switch #2… It sits right above the door handle, and says “POTTY!” We can keep the door shut, because we are allowing students to have a quick and easy way to meet their need. Just like our counter switch, we positioned it for the easiest access for this particular group of kids. Like with help, they all have the ability to ask for potty on their talkers. But it’s hard. It’s new. We need a bridge until we get there, and this is it.

And once again, it works. We have students requesting the potty that I had under-estimated, that I had not been sure they were yet able to request. It’s not that I did’t think they ever could, but I wasn’t sure they were “ready yet”. But they have an awesome way of continually reminding me that “readiness” can be an arbitrary concept, one that is primarily used to limit them. Readiness is about accommodations as much as instruction. It’s about what I am doing  more than anything they are doing.

Meeting needs works. Again and again.