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Lessons From a Six-Year-Old in a Squad Car

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The scene on the video is heartbreaking. An adorable six-year-old girl walks away from her elementary school—escorted not by her teacher or a parent, but by a sheriff’s deputy.

“Am I going to jail?” the girl asks.

“No,” the officer replies, “you’re not going to jail.”

Seconds later, the girl slides into the back seat of a police cruiser, still perplexed about where she’s being taken. “It’s a field trip?” she asks innocently.

But the Jacksonville, Florida, sheriff’s deputies weren’t taking Nadia King on a field trip. The officers were responding to a report that the four-foot-tall elementary-school student was acting “out of control” and posing “a threat to herself and others,” according to a police report.

Under a controversial Florida law called the Baker Act, that was enough for the school to summon police, who delivered the child to a mental-health facility, where she was held for 48 hours—without her mother’s permission. The law allows authorities to institutionalize individuals considered dangerous to themselves or others, regardless of age.

The troubling February 4 incident illustrates a disturbing reality: our education and juvenile-justice systems lack the most basic understanding of how to manage children’s behavioral challenges. Too often, teachers and administrators react to behavioral outbursts without even trying to understand their cause. All too often, they punish children for actions the children can’t control. In addition, black children like Nadia are targeted for disciplinary actions at disproportionately higher rates than white children. We must come to awareness of the implicit and explicit bias that exists in education and the justice system, and change our practices now.

Calling the police to take away a six-year-old girl having a tantrum is like arresting a child for having an asthma attack. Children don’t “throw” tantrums for no reason. Such behaviors are natural responses to the physiological distress in their autonomic nervous systems. Children, like all humans, want to stay out of trouble. As psychologist Ross Greene says, “children do well if they can.”

A child who can’t control his or her behavior is in a brain state that is driven subconsciously. The behavior is not willful or intentional, but reactive and instinctive. These “fight-or-flight” responses stem from a brain-body connection that doesn’t support control over one’s emotions and behaviors. Through the nervous system, the child is begging to be witnessed as vulnerable and frightened.

Nadia has been labeled with ADHD and global developmental delays and is being evaluated for autism, her mother told Time magazine.  Regardless of labels, though, when any child experiences a fight-or-flight response, what she needs is compassion and understanding. She needs adults to calm and soothe her, to connect with her, one person to another. Too often, the response is the opposite: the adults in a child’s life seclude or restrain the child. Again, it’s vital to note that this happens to children of color far more often than their white peers.

In extreme cases, such as Nadia’s, we separate the child from her primary caregiver, her mother, at just the moment when she needs more connection, more engagement, and more support. That couldn’t be more harmful.

A child like Nadia has no idea that her instinctive feeling of threat is causing her to exhibit troubling behaviors. She only knows that she wants to feel safe.

Teachers, administrators, counselors, and all adults who work with children need to keep this in mind, recognizing that behaviors we see at threatening or aggressive might very well be the child’s way of adapting psychologically—in short, an effort to feel safer.

Until we update our practices to incorporate this basic understanding, more children like Nadia will end up in police cars, wondering what kind of field trip they’re being taken on.

I share more about how teachers and others can identify and support children’s stress responses and reduce implicit bias in the book Beyond Behaviors.

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