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?

Selecting skills: But why does it matter?

blue Thomas train leading a line of toys that includes a broom... a shoe-less foot is peeking in to the edge of the frame.When people enter my classroom, they are sometimes confused. There is a lot that looks different from a typical classroom. A quarter of our room is filled with things that one would typically see outside: ride-along trains, cars, slides. Half of my class spends their days without socks or shoes. If we are in a large group setting, students may be seated at the table. They may also be doing something else in the back of the room, pacing near to the large group, or coming back and forth from the table. Independent work happens on the floor, standing at the table, in rocking chairs, next to squeeze machines. Students engaged in child-directed play may be stacking, lining up items, or scripting. Not only that, but you’ll find classroom staff delighting in these things, expressing joy right alongside the students.

People see this and think that I am permissive and lenient, that I don’t believe in my students, or that I am not teaching them.

Yet — I get good outcomes. Scratch that — I get great outcomes. My students master their IEP goals. My students develop a ‘functional communication system’. Their self-injury, aggression, and meltdowns disappear over time. They learn to tell someone no, to be more independent, and build relationships in ways that honor and support their needs & desires. My families are very happy with the learning that happens in our room, sometimes the first big progress that a student has made. My students and families trust me, which is even more important.

And this doesn’t happen in spite of the environment, but because of the environment.

My classroom environment respects neurodiversity. My classroom expectations respect neurodiversity.

Whenever we set an expectation in my classroom, I ask myself: but why is this the expectation? When we choose a skill to target for instruction: but why are we selecting this skill? I don’t just accept my first answer, but dive deep into it. Where did this expectation come from? Is it necessary for safety? Is it necessary for learning? Is there an alternate way?

Let’s take a look at wearing shoes in the classroom. Why do we insist on this? Is it because this is what we are familiar with? This is what the neurotypical students do? What reason would we have for pushing shoes all day? Is it necessary for safety? No. Students put their shoes on to leave the classroom. They put their shoes on for the playground. But in the classroom, it is not necessary to wear shoes in order to be safe. Is it necessary for learning? No, and I would argue that it is actually counterproductive to learning. If you’ve ever had an unmet sensory need, you would know what I mean. It can be one of the most distressing and distracting experiences, causing pain and discomfort for the entire time that it is unmet. I want my students to learn. This means meeting their sensory needs.

Similarly, with large groups — why do we believe that students can only learn or learn best when seated together in a group at the table or the carpet? Can the student hear my instruction when they are pacing behind our group? Almost certainly, and possibly better than they can when seated. Can they add to the conversation or take their turn with the materials even though they had to leave for several minutes and then return?

I don’t insist on greetings and closings when entering and leaving the classroom, much less eye contact. I make sure that I greet each of my arriving students with warmth and affection in a way that works for their personalities and needs. But they don’t have to return that greeting. They don’t have to look me in the eye. They don’t have to say hello or good morning or good-bye. Once again — is it necessary for me to insist they greet us? Does it have to look a certain way? What purpose does that serve? Why do we do it? If the answer is, in any shape or form, “because that’s what neurotypical children do”, then we need to step back and ask ourselves if that’s enough for something to be necessary. It usually isn’t. Instead, we can create a classroom environment that allows for and recognizes a much wider display of “what something looks like”. We can recognize as valid and beautiful the many different forms there are to acknowledge someone’s presence (e.g., what a greeting is). We can recognize that some days, students may need time and space upon entering the room. We can recognize that people move through the world differently. It’s not only okay, but beautiful and essential.

It’s not that I don’t hold high expectations for my students. We engage in real reading, real work with letters, and real writing. We learn about numbers, geometry, and measurement. We explore patterns. We do science experiments. We create art. We participate in teacher-directed activities. We work really hard every single moment of the day on speaking and listening. We are safe with our bodies and our friends.

It’s that I recognize that our world is better when our world recognizes that validity and importance of different ways of being in the world. And that is why we do as well as we do.

 

This is part one in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Future posts will feature conversation on play, selecting target goals, and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

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.