Years ago, when my now adult son was in grade 1, I got the dreaded call from his school that I would need to go in and discuss my son’s behavior. For a reason I will never know, he took a pile of glue and attempted to glue his bum to his chair. The chair and his pants were full of glue. My conversation with him and his teacher at the time went something like this:
Me to my son: “What were you thinking?!?”
Still Me: “I’ll tell you what you were thinking. You weren’t thinking!”
Me to his teacher: “I have no idea what he was thinking. I am so sorry!”
His teacher: “Yeah, I don’t know why he did this.”
Me to my son: “You know what? You need to clean up this mess AND help clean up the classroom and clean more at home for awhile! That’ll teach you to never glue your bum to a chair again!”
Still me to both my son and his teacher: “I will never understand why anyone would glue their bum to a chair!”
What’s wrong with the way this was handled? Why do I still not know to this day years later the reason behind the glue incident? It is BECAUSE he was never given a chance to speak! Consequences to “fix” the behavior were thrown at him without hesitation.
Did he do this on a dare? Was it a cry for attention? Was he innocently attempting to be able to sit absolutely still for his teacher? Was he trying to get his peers to laugh? Was there something else going on?
It wasn’t long after the bum-gluing incident that I was given the opportunity through work to attend my first workshop led by Dr. Ross Greene (I’ve since attended a couple more of his workshops and would love to attend even more in the future). That first workshop of his that I attended was the beginning of me transforming how I view and communicate with children. If you are not familiar with Dr. Ross Greene’s work, I highly recommend reading The Explosive Child, Raising Human Beings and/or Lost at School.
Behavior as Communication
Whether we choose to see it or not, behavior is a method of communication.
Is the child too young to communicate what is happening? Often adults think this to be true. However, I know of a kid in a kindergarten class that refused to sit on the carpet during carpet time. He would throw some type of tantrum anytime carpet time was expected. Using the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions Approach recommended by Dr. Ross Greene, it was discovered that this child was bothered by the way his pants felt on his legs when he sat cross-legged on the floor.
The solution was a simple fix in that he would sit on the carpet when wearing sweatpants. When wearing the pants that bothered him in the cross-legged position, he would sit on a chair right next to the carpet.
Was this solution much better than having this child cry, scream, hit others or cause some other type of scene every time carpet time came around? Definitely! Was this solution harming anyone? Not at all!
By involving the child and getting to the core of what was going on, further problems were prevented and the entire class could function in a positive manner. Furthermore, the child did not proceed to grade 1 with a label of being a defiant child who frequently acted out.
More Extreme Example
I will now give you a much more extreme case involving a teenager I worked more closely with years ago. This was a student who was transferring in part-way through the school year to the school I worked in at the time. He was definitely a “flagged” student in that his file was a nightmare. He had an extreme special funding code for having extreme social/emotional needs. I opened the file and was bombarded with “evidence” of how bad his behavior was.
This was a student who had been sent to special behavior schools in his past in order to try to gain control of his behavior. His file contained numerous photos of evidence of cruelty he had inflicted on others over the years, along with the dates and consequences that followed each incident. Bites, hits… the pictures of bruises and pain he had caused were plentiful! There were also numerous professional reports with suggestions for dealing with his behavior.
The problem with all of this is no one had ever asked this student what was going on. All of these years, the adults and professionals in his life consulted and wrote reports for combating his behavior without ever involving him directly in any way!
One of the first things I did once this individual started at the school was meet with him directly to develop his behavior plan. It didn’t take long at all for him to put the pieces of his past behavior in perspective. He acted out and hurt others when he felt like he didn’t belong (which had been a frequent feeling for him in his past).
He also told me that he had been the product of an affair, was left to live with his dad, who was still with his original wife and what would be this child’s biological older half-siblings, somewhere in his earlier years. Even though everyone seemed to treat him well in his home, he felt he didn’t fully fit in and would become very angry any time he was in a situation in which he felt left out or that he didn’t belong in.
Wow! We were then able to have a discussion about what he could do when these feelings came up for him instead of externalizing them and inflicting pain on others. We were also able to make sure he gained a sense of belonging within the school by making sure he was given opportunities for extra-curricular activities that appealed to him. His teachers were made aware to be sensitive to the fact that he needed to feel like he belonged within the classroom. All of this became his behavior plan INSTEAD OF simply the “when he hits others” type of jargon.
This was a true success story in that this student went through his year at the school without displaying any of the behaviors that his file had convinced us he would display. I am still amazed to this day that, with all of the programs involving both in-school and out of school support for him and his extreme behavior, that no one had asked him what was going on for him when he inflicted so much physical pain on others.
I don’t want to convey that every behavior is an easy fix or that there aren’t serious mental health struggles that parents and/or schools see. I also don’t want to convey that I am any different or better than anyone else out there when dealing with kids, because I’m not. In the above example, I simply talked to the child about his past behavior and then reached out to him to come up with his own solution. He was allowed to have a voice, that’s all.
It is important to note that these discussions mentioned above DID NOT occur when the students were escalated in any manner. Having in-depth conversations about one’s behavior does not occur when the individual is escalated or even 5 minutes afterward… they need to occur when things are going well!
It is crucial to listen to what is going on instead of to tell what is going on. In doing this, powerful lessons can be gained. Kids do have a voice and, when listened to, will often help the adults working with them gain perspective on what may be going on for them. I know this is cliché, but I guess people really have been given two ears and only one mouth for a reason!
I welcome your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This post contains affiliate links, helping me support my family at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support! I also recommend https://livesinthebalance.org/ as there are a number of free resources accessible there for parents.