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Supporting Behaviorally Challenged and Neurodivergent Students in Education and Special Education

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“Davon”, a quiet and loving eight-year-old boy diagnosed on the autism spectrum, was placed in a special education class with ten other classmates. Unable to use spoken language, he employed a picture-exchange system to communicate. His teacher worked hard to determine what he needed or wanted, yet often Davon would wail loudly and move about the classroom while touching the walls with his hands. His parents asked me to observe Davon and advise the teacher and staff on helping him with these behaviors and the difficult transition to his new classroom.

On the day I observed, Davon struggled to stay seated during a reading lesson. Lurching backward in his chair and making loud vocalizations, he finally stood up, ignoring his teacher’s pleas to return to the table. The interaction was in stark contrast to what I had witnessed just minutes earlier on the playground. There, he had run up to the teacher and shown her a handful of leaves he had gathered. He smiled, appeared relaxed, and was emotionally engaged—clearly connected to the teacher. Inside the classroom, though, Davon seemed disorganized and distant, seemingly miles away.

In a team meeting later in the day, we reflected on the stark contrast between Davon’s emotional stability and availability outside and inside the classroom. We created a list of hypotheses to explain his behaviors and ways we might offer support. The team believed that Davon was communicating that he wanted or didn’t want something through his behavior. That was how they were trained to view all behaviors in students. Through my lens of looking beyond behaviors, I saw a child’s physiology launching the behaviors, with the main question  being: how could the teacher help him use his relationship with her to let her know what his body and mind needed?

When the team applied a developmental and relationship-based approach to Davon’s struggles, new strategies emerged. Now, his teachers viewed his body language (lurching and making noises) as a reflection of the state of his nervous system rather than “noncompliance.” Inside the classroom, the sounds, lights, and a busy environment presented more sensory challenges to Davon than on the playground where he could move around and feel more comfortable. Inside the classroom, it was more difficult for Davon to access the teacher and get help for his internal distress, so his behavioral (physical) movements increased. Sensations and the resulting emotions propel us to move, and all of Davon’s behaviors were a clue to help us understand how to help him.

Let’s reframe how we view “challenging” or “non-compliant” behaviors. When disruptive behaviors increase, we should first ask if we are meeting and supporting the child’s emotional and/or physical needs. If a child’s behaviors are the only way he can signal the need for support, paying attention to the meanings underlying behaviors is critical to the child’s development of trust in relationships. When adults in his life considered Davon’s emotional needs, they created a new plan with a focus on compassionately improving his ability to communicate his needs. The classroom aide and teacher stayed close to Davon during transitions throughout the school day, watching him closely for signs of stress, and providing support as needed. As a result of this shift, his negative behaviors decreased dramatically.

Establishing trusting relationships is critical, and requires warmth, patience and an attitude of reflection. Let’s use that as our guide and stop artificially manipulating children’s behaviors outside of an understanding of their true needs.

I explain more about how to view behavioral challenges as adaptive in Beyond Behaviors.

 

Excerpted from Delahooke, Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention

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