More Than Special Needs

There is always a search for new approaches that will be effective in helping children with special needs.  This usually refers to children who are unable to learn in usual ways – either because of special deficits or behavioral issues that cause them to be disruptive in classrooms.  Author David Bornstein has written an online article titled, “Teaching Children to Calm Themselves,” in which he describes a Head Start Trauma Smart program for children who have lived through seriously adverse experiences.

Many of these children have out of control rages in which they scream, push, and hit other children or teachers.  Often such children have already been expelled from one or more preschools, adding feelings of failure to the other emotional burdens they already bear.  Typically, disciplinary measures have been tried unsuccessfully including scolding, punishment and time-out.

The intervention used in the Head Start Trauma Smart program is based on something called ARC (Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency).  The challenge lies in extending effective programs like this one from therapeutic settings, which are limited and expensive, into broader programs that serve larger numbers of children.  But an even more significant challenge might be how to extend the understanding of behavior and the techniques used with “special needs” children to educational interventions generally.  

A co-developer of ARC asks “How do we help caregivers and teachers tune in and understand the messages that kids are really sending through their behavior?”  While  the children in the particular program cited have experienced traumas that cause them to feel unsafe and angry, the behavior in which they express these feelings, perhaps to a lesser degree, is familiar to many parents and teachers.  Parents often are concerned about children’s meltdowns that may seem inexplicable.  Also of concern are angry outbursts that seem out of proportion to the provocation.  Too often such behaviors are seen as symptoms of a disorder rather than communication of real feelings.

One point made in the program is the need to validate children’s emotions.  As adults, we see the need to correct or do something about their behavior, and we forget to think about the feelings that are being expressed through the behavior.  One mother, who was upset about her child hitting her, had tried punishment, time-outs and other methods to stop him.  When none of these methods changed the behavior, she felt helpless and simply allowed it to continue.

Since the behavior seemed an expression of anger, she was asked why her child might be angry at her.  Although not considering it significant, she said it was probably because she interrupted his play to ask him to do something or go somewhere.  Understandably, the mom was not focused on what he was doing that was important to him, but on what she had to accomplish that was important to her.  By becoming aware of this and simply giving him some advance warning about what she had in mind, or allowing more time for him to finish his play, made a great deal of difference.  Before long the hitting behavior stopped.

Although unacceptable, the behavior itself was not the real issue.  And the solution did not lie in trying to control the behavior.  Efforts at control most often lead to further confrontation and anger on the part of parent and child.  Feeling unsuccessful may lead a parent to doing nothing and feelings of helplessness.

 Here is where acknowledging feelings can be helpful.  A mother in such a situation can tell her child that she understands he is angry, that hitting her is not acceptable but that she will try to help him with whatever he is angry about.  Just saying, “I know you are angry”, as parents sometimes do, really becomes meaningless unless real conviction lies behind it and more work is done to get to what the child is really saying through his behavior. 

Children themselves most often do not know what the feelings are that they express in their behavior.  As adults we have to do that work, and in the process help children become better able to express those feelings in more socially acceptable ways.  This is a process that may take some time and can run counter to a parent’s feeling that the behavior must be stopped.  The goal is to help children control their own feelings rather than acting them out in behavior.  To accomplish that goal, we have to be able to do it ourselves. 

“Special needs” may refer to children who face extraordinary hurdles they have to overcome.  But all children have needs that feel special to them.  They, too, can be helped best if we understand their behavior in order to help them express those needs in constructive ways.