Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Challenging Behavior at School? Here’s what to do…

            As the school year winds down and fidget spinners are all the rage in my classroom, student behaviors are fresh on my mind.  I’ve blogged a bit about my class before, but suffice it to say that I have a class full of sensory kiddos.  They run the gamut from sensory seekers to extreme avoiders, and everything in between.  During my fifteen years of teaching and coaching other teachers, I have worked with lots of different types of learners.  For most of my career, I’ve worked with children of poverty, whose stressful and often toxic home environments bring their own unique behavioral challenges.   I’m not only a teacher, but I’m also a mom to an eight year old who is both a sensory seeker and an avoider.  His autism and anxiety, along with his desire for perfection in some areas and the "hurry up and finish" mentality in others, adds a certain behavioral flair to his classroom.  This past year I’ve had the chance to watch him as a learner at school since I teach right down the hall.  This perspective allows me to view behavior from both the parent and the teacher lens (and also the lens of a person with sensory needs myself).

             And so, without further ado, here are my thoughts on student behavior in the classroom....

            Behavior is not as black and white as some people may think.  I believe that children, in nearly all cases, don’t wake up in the morning with the intention of behaving badly.  Behavior is a manifestation of unmet needs. 

In teacher college I learned about something called Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs.  In a nutshell, Maslow taught that each of us have certain needs that must be met.  Imagine a pyramid that builds on itself.  If the needs at the base of the pyramid aren’t met, then the next level of the pyramid is impacted, all the way to the top (where learning occurs).  The bottom tier of the pyramid are basic needs.  We must have food, water, warmth, and rest.  Then next tier on the pyramid is safety needs.  We must feel secure and safe in our environment.  Following this, we have the need for love and belonging.  This manifests through our relationships and friendships.  The next level up is our self-esteem needs.  We need to feel respected by others and feel confident that we can achieve.  Finally, the top tier of the triangle is self-actualization needs.  This is our ability to be creative, solve problems, and, in essence, learn.

            How does this translate to behavior in the classroom?  Let’s look at Maslow’s pyramid one tier at a time:

Basic Needs:  

It seems pretty obvious that we need food, water, and rest to be successful as learners.  However, over the years I have seen many children who come to school without even these basic needs met.  I've seen many "behavior problems" happen simply because a child is tired or hungry (or both).  Think about how you feel before you've eaten and had your coffee, and you'll know what I mean.

Many children with sensory needs are picky eaters.  I find that some of my students have difficulty eating first thing in the morning, and so they come into the classroom hungry each day. If they are hungry, they cannot learn.  Making a time and space for snack time in the classroom is important.  In addition, I encourage children to keep a water bottle close by.  Little things like food and water make a big difference.  Rest is also crucial.  Many sensory kiddos have difficulty sleeping at night.  Their energy stores are already depleted when they come to school each day.  Sometimes we need to “rev their engines”, and other times we need to help them calm down.  I build energizers and brain breaks throughout the day to help with this.  Some children are on a more individualized plan because they need more frequent opportunities for movement.  I believe that so many behavior problems occur because the child simply needs to move.  Sometimes the seams of a child’s socks bother him, which makes focusing on what a teacher is saying nearly impossible.  If a child’s shirt feels to tight, or the room feels to cold, it’s very difficult to concentrate on learning.  

I strive to teach each child to recognize his or her own sensory needs and then I teach them to find the right tools to meet these needs.  That way, they can be their own self-advocates and ask for what they need, based on what their bodies are telling them.

Safety Needs:  

If a child does not feel safe, learning cannot occur.  There are many reasons why a child may not feel safe.  It’s important to figure out why the child does not feel safe in the classroom and address these concerns as soon as possible. The child may be sensory defensive, a state where the child feels as if the entire world is literally attacking him or her.  The world can seem too loud, too intrusive, too…much.  Children who live in this state appear to be defiant and often become labeled as “behavior problems”.  Children who have anxiety disorders also often manifest as behavior problems.  I have had children who bolted out of the classroom, and later we realized that the root cause of this “fight or flight” response was anxiety.  It is important that the child knows that the classroom is a safe place and that you are a safe person for them who will treat them consistently and predictably, especially since their world is not often consistent and predictable for them.   The more unpredictable a child's behavior, the more calm and predictable the teacher or adult must be.  If a child is a safety risk to himself or others, it is important to devise a safety plan as soon as possible. 

Children need to feel that they belong to the learning community in the classroom.  I believe that many behavior problems happen because the relationship between the child and the adult, or the child and other children has been broken in some way.  Children don’t display inappropriate behaviors in a vacuum.  There is always a root cause of the behavior, an unfulfilled need that the child is seeking to meet.  This does not excuse the inappropriate behavior, but often times it helps to explain it so that the behavior doesn’t continue to occur.  When a child knows that he or she is loved and accepted by the teacher and the classmates in his learning community, even if he or she many sometimes act differently from the rest, this can go a long way towards keeping and maintaining positive relationships.   Even when a child makes an inappropriate behavior choice in my classroom (or when this happens to my own child at home), I always make it clear that I’m not happy about the choice the child has made, but I still love and care about the child.  Then, if a child has to be removed from the classroom community, it is important to re-establish the child in the community as soon as possible so the child keeps the sense of belonging and wanting to be part of the group.  

I build in lots of social opportunities in my classroom.  These include center time or tub time, where children get the chance to choose whether they would like to build with Legos, K’nex, play-doh, kinetic sand, etc.  The first fifteen minutes of our morning are spent with these tubs.  This may not seem academic, but this social time is a huge part of building our classroom community and it’s vital for teaching children skills of problem solving and collaborating within a group.  We also have morning meetings when each child has an opportunity to greet his or her peers, discuss social matters pertaining to the group, and to feel that sense of belonging in our class family.

Self-Esteem Needs: 
When children struggle in a certain area, over time they will learn to avoid the behavior that causes them the frustration, anxiety, or pain.  Avoidance behaviors in the classroom might look like asking to go the restroom frequently or asking to sharpen a pencil a lot.  The child doesn’t want to appear to be the “dumb kid” in class, so often they will choose behaviors that let them be the funny kid instead.  If a child has unmet sensory needs (such as the need to move, to fidget, etc) and has a teacher who treats this as defiance rather then providing tools to help them manage their sensory behaviors, the child may respond with frustration and anger.   

Self-Actualization Needs:   
It is difficult for a child to be a creative problem solver if he or she is in an environment that stifles creativity and problem solving.  We live in the information age where data is literally available at our fingertips.  It no longer makes sense for the teacher to be the “sage on the stage”.  Instead, the teacher of the 21st century should be a facilitator, or guide, for learning.  It is our job to set the conditions by which learning can occur.  There are a variety of ways to encourage learning, but one of my favorite is inquiry.  This is where the teacher (or the child) poses a probing question and then the teacher guides the child through a process of arriving at the answer on his own.  Learning is much deeper when it happens through self-discovery.  My classroom is filled with creative, innovative learners.  Sadly, before this year many of these children did not believe they were smart.  I think the reason for this is because they were not given opportunities for their creativity and innovation to shine.  Instead, they spent so much time working in their area of deficits (aka reading for most) that they believed that they were somehow deficient themselves.  Once a child begins to see himself (or herself) as a learner, everything changes.  Once they realize their potential, they become thirsty for more.  I have seen this time and again.  The secret ingredient to success in school is a desire to learn.  When a child becomes a confident, self-directed learner, then behavior problems become a thing of the past. 

So what does this mean for you as a parent?  If your child is struggling at school, think about Maslow’s hierarcy of needs.  Which needs are not being met?  What can you do to help your child fulfill these needs?  If you know that your child has difficulty sleeping or eating, for example, make sure that you communicate this with your child’s teacher.  This will help the teacher to understand the behaviors she is seeing in the classroom.  It’s also important to look at behaviors over time to see if there are patterns.  Is the behavior happening during a certain time of day?  Does it always happen during math class?  These sorts of observations can be helpful in determining a plan for success.

If you are noticing that your child is struggling in school even after meeting with the teacher, you can request a meeting with the school’s problem solving team.  This team has different names depending on the state, but every school should have a group of school professionals who meet regularly to discuss student concerns.  Usually you can call the school’s guidance counselor and she will help to set up the meeting.  If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan, you can request a meeting with the team at any time as well.  Perhaps the IEP or 504 should be reviewed or amended.  Each person on the team brings a unique perspective based on their area of expertise, and sometimes a set of fresh ears can bring a solution that you may have missed before. 

Remember- you are your child’s biggest advocate.  It’s easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed with “the system”, but by keeping your cool and going to meetings with a clear plan in mind (and knowing your rights as a parent), you and the team can create a plan that will hopefully help to meet your child’s needs at school and at home.  

Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.