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Empathy First

November 15, 2016

“School staff today are under enormous pressure to show progress for every student every year. Yet they are in a bind. One disruptive child can effectively derail an entire lesson.”

An article[i] tweeted from the Child Mind Institute offers strategies for teachers to cope with students who may have mental health challenges.  The article itself is worth reading – it is full of very good insights for anyone who interacts with kids on a regular basis.

It caught my eye because the issue of mental health in schools is near to my heart – I am a parent of a school age child and I work as a psychologist with clients who have a wide variety of disabilities and mental health diagnoses.  Both of these roles brings me into schools on a regular basis.

As a parent, I feel frustrated when another student repeatedly disrupts the classroom.  I feel annoyed for the class time this behavior wastes and I feel empathy for the teacher who is probably doing her best with very little support.  But mostly, I feel angry that the child who is – time and time again – exhibiting these behaviors does not seem to be getting the attention she needs and deserves. 

My experience as a parent runs parallel to my work with adults who have developmental disabilities.  The vast majority of my clients attend either post-secondary programming in schools or similarly run vocational programming in the community.  A referral is made to me when an individual is exhibiting behaviors that require additional support from teachers, caregivers, or family members.

If there is one thing I have learned, particularly in working with clients who have limited access to the more conventional means of communication, is that behavior is communication.

A child or developmentally delayed adult who is “exhibiting challenging behaviors” on a regular basis isn’t being “naughty” or “manipulative” or “bad” (all adjectives I have heard).  This person does not need to be yelled at or excluded from the enjoyable parts of the day. 

Most often, this person needs someone to pause an activity long enough to find out why she is upset[ii]

This will take some time.  You can’t simply ask a child or a developmentally delayed adult, what’s the matter? once or twice and expect some kind of insightful response (or any response at all).  This individual may not be able to verbally express how she feels or why she is acting this way.  That’s the reason she is using behavior to get someone to notice her distress in the first place.

In every behavioral treatment plan that I write for caregivers, I include empathy as the primary reactive strategy for behaviors of concern.  I ask that caregivers pause long enough to consider how this individual is feeling in the moment, because that will be the crucial information to helping the person address (if not resolve) the problem and begin to feel better.

Trying to simply eliminate the behavior is not going far enough.  If you have coerced, bribed, or threatened another person into stopping a behavior without addressing the root of the problem, I promise that you will see that behavior again.  Possibly escalated, just to make sure you are getting the message.

Start with empathy.  Take a deep breath and focus calm attention to this precious individual whom you serve as caregiver or teacher.  Do this often enough – communicate your genuine and consistent desire to understand and to help – and progress has a chance to begin.

[i] http://childmind.org/article/breaking-behavior-code/

[ii] Like this, for example: http://abcnews.go.com/US/indiana-cop-lies-floor-kid-bad-day/story?id=42474461

Cynthia Ransley, MA, TLLPCynthia Ransley is the Social Media Copywriter for MiSPP.