Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Years 13 to 22: The Reid Years: Behavior

Over the years, my biggest frustrations were connected to the managing or changing of behaviors. If you stay in the education field for any length of time, you will be introduced and exposed again and again to the alphabet soup of disorders associated with problem behaviors; FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome), RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Tourettes, etc. I'm barely scratching the surface here.

And sometimes the behavior isn't attached to a known "disorder" , but is caused by neglect or abuse. When I worked in Olympia, I had one boy for two years. I worked with him first in the preschool in Olympia and then in the self-contained program in Tumwater. Although he could have stayed an additional year with the preschool, this boy was so hard to work with that the remaining preschool teachers elected to send him to me in Tumwater. This little guy was extremely non-compliant and one of the first things he did that year was to urinate down all of the vents in the portable we were in. You can imagine the smell when the heat came on! This boy's mom lived in a single wide mobile home near Tumwater. One day the boy locked her in the bathroom and then proceeded to dump flour, sugar and water all over the floors. She had to crawl out of the bathroom window to get back into the trailer. I will admit, this boy was a challenge! Then at conference time his mom told me this story. At the age of just 5 months, his father put up a target on the wall and anytime this child cried, he picked him up and threw him at the target. Unbelievable. But now I had a better idea of why I saw the behaviors I did.

Along with the variety of behaviors came a variety of approaches to handling them. Again in Olympia, my first year, the district brought in Randy Sprick, a young up and coming professor who was making a name for himself in the area of behavior management. At that time, 1976, he was all about "disrupting the disruptor". Here is an example: a student is having a tantrum or is refusing to do what you ask. You walk up to that student and say something really off the wall like, "I was wondering if you could tell me more about those peacocks you have at your house." This was supposed to derail the student's train of thought and get him back on your track. Working with really young children, this never was a great strategy, but Randy was very entertaining and over the years he has developed very credible approaches to managing behaviors.

So by the time I was working in Cheney, I had a lot of experience with behaviors, but minimal success with changing them. At one time in the preschool, I had five children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, one with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, three or four with autism, and one with a very abusive father. All of these children had issues and challenges, but the young boy with the abusive father had the most problems. He sought out the weaker and younger children and looked for opportunities to tease or hurt them. At the time he enrolled, I could see he had lots of behavior issues, but wasn't sure of the cause. That all changed one day several months later.

This boy did not ride the bus, but instead came to school with his mother. Each time she brought him in and dropped him off, she would tell us a story related to any small scrape or bruise he might have. We thought this unusual because most of these were very minor, normal, being an active child type scratches and scrapes. Then one day his mom brought him in and said nothing before leaving. Kay and I thought this was pretty unusual, and more so because this little guy, who always wore jeans, was dressed in a loose pair of sweats. Well after an hour or so of school, he asked to go to the bathroom. I was down on the floor and reached over and touched his leg as I said yes he could go. He jumped at the touch and said, "Be careful of my owie on my leg." I said, "You have an owie on your leg?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Can I see your owie?" He said, "Sure." So we went into the bathroom and he took his pants down. What I saw almost made me faint. He had severe burns on his leg in the pattern of an electric space heater. I called Kay in and asked her to get my Polaroid camera. We called the nurse and the principal. I said, "Can you tell me how you got that owie?" He said, "My dad was really, really mad at me." The next call was to CPS.

CPS did not let this little guy go home that day, and in fact they went to his house and picked up "I think I ended up marrying someone just like my father. When I was growing up, he had a job that took him out of town for several weeks at a time. When he was gone, all was well. Then he would come home. When he did it was just like a giant that picked up the house and shook it as hard as he could. Everything and everyone was in chaos, and that was the way it stayed until he left again." I was amazed by the picture that painted for me. Once again I had more insight into why this young boy exhibited the behaviors he did.
his younger sister as well. The two stayed with social workers while others checked up on the parents. The father stated that the boy had accidentally tripped and fell against the heater, causing the burns. However, I couldn't see how the pattern of the space heater elements could have made that significant of an impression for just briefly falling against it. These burns looked as if he had been held against the hot elements for several seconds. The next day he was back in class and his mom, sporting a brand new black eye, was hopping mad. I took her into my office and closed the door. I explained to her about being a mandatory reporter and the fact that she had said nothing about his injuries the day before. She broke down in tears and this is what she said:

Later that year I had a chance to ask Ron Nelson, EWU professor and creator of "Think Time", what he might recommend to help with some of the behaviors I was dealing with, especially with the young boy. I told him the story about the burns and suspected abuse. Ron had an extensive background working with troubled children in group homes and this is what he told me: "Sit down with this boy and tell him you know what it is like at his house, but that while he is at school, it is your job to make sure he is safe, and all of the other boys and girls are safe as well." That was probably my first introduction to a "Social Story" of sorts! The very next day I took the boy aside and talked to him about his home and what we were going to make sure we did for him at school. I swear I saw him take a breath and relax somewhat. Now I won't say that changed his behavior, but I do think it helped. I've always wondered what happened to him over the years.

The good news is that when I changed jobs and became an education specialist in Spokane a few years later, I actually learned a lot about behavior and how to change it. The bad news is, I wish I'd known these strategies while still teaching! I would have been a much better teacher!

Update 4/10/18:

This blog entry was part of my original blog published in 2013/2014. However, after I finished this blog and retired from teaching, the mother of the young man in this story contacted me via Facebook. I knew that she followed everything I wrote about, and knew that if she found my blog, this might be hard on her. So I pulled this entry. However, I am no longer on Facebook, and decided I wanted to put it back up.

I was very surprised when this mother contacted me. She told me that she eventually left the abusive relationship with her husband, and that her son was being cared for in a special group home. She also told me that he talks about me often, saying I was his favorite teacher and he wondered what became of me. This really surprised me but made me think that maybe I hadn’t done too badly by this young man. Recently his mom asked me if I would send her a picture of myself at her son’s request. I did.