Blame it on the children not hearing the word “NO” at any time in their lives, screen time and the use of mobile phones and Ipads(think no vocabulary development, learning how to listen, have conversation, look at someone in the eyes when you are talking, etc.,) the pressures and stress parents are under due to the economy(necessity to work two and three jobs, inability to provide basics for the family, prevalence of drug abuse, Internet addictions, etc.,) trauma experiences that children have endured at a much younger age(sex abuse, starvation and other stress endured because of poverty situations, emotional and physical abuse, seeing, hearing, and unfortunately having to participate in adult language, relationship themes, violence etc. that they should not ever at a young age be exposed to,) just to name a few.
Finally, our own pressures of achievement at school to focus only on academic outcomes instead of the whole child and ensure emotional and social stability first before pressuring children to achieve more, write more, read more, and learn more! Our own attitudes as adults have put undue pressure on children in regards to their behavior. For example, we would never expect a child to read at a G level(nor give them a book at this level to read) if they were only reading at an A level. So if a child is behaving at an A level, why do we expect them to behave at a G level? The continuum for academic learning applies the same when it comes to emotional and social development. We have to teach young children the necessary skills of self-regulation, how to calm oneself, how to interact socially with others in an appropriate manner, how to best get what you want through negotiation instead of throwing a hissy fit!
This can be one of the first lessons for a teacher who has a traumatized/emotionally charged youngster in their care. They want to keep shoving the instructional learning down the child’s throat because they are worried they will get behind. As you know, this method will just exacerbate the situation and force kids to act out, throw tantrums, chairs, etc. all in order to prove that they are in control and need to get what they want. Youngsters can also show a different type of emotional response and hide under desks and chairs or just simply slump down on the floor and refuse to move or do anything in a passive-aggressive sort of manner.
The response needs to be focused on fixing the child’s emotional health and well-being before we can work on instruction skills. This is a major nemesis for teachers, because they want this child to act just like the others and get with the program. For the principal, there are several proactive interventions and or relationship building techniques and strategies that should be considered. Here is my list of things to think about:
1. Build a positive relationship with the emotionally charged child.
The principal needs to get to know this child on a personal level. Not just getting to know them in emotionally charged situations. Find out what the emotionally charged child’s interests are. What do they like to do and or play with? Make a plan to read, listen to music, play a game or put a puzzle together in a mutually pleasing space. It could be your office, but it might be in the library in a corner with bean bags. This time should not be dependent on a reward system, but should be time that he or she gets to spend with you. Yeah, I know, people will say, “Why does that child get to spend extra time with the principal? That’s not fair!” Well, here is what I have to say about that, these children come to us with their glass half-empty, the rest poured out and drunk dry and spit out. They deserve some extra attention and acknowledgement to at least begin filling something in their emotional reserve that has been sucked dry. During this time, you can begin working on compliance, asking the child to go get something and bring it to you or picking up a piece of paper and throwing it in the garbage. Small wins of compliance that build the opportunity for us to positively impact our relationship with this child to do what we ask them to do is a first step.
2, Find out what is triggering the child’s emotionally charged response.
We need to find out everything we can about this little person. Is this behavior new? What has happened in their life recently that may be triggering the response that you are observing? Meet with family members and build a relationship with them to explore and find out what has happened to this child before they came to you. Home visits,( if parents are willing) are a great way to be on their turf to explore how the child interacts in the home. Are they living with grandparents? Are family members sick? What situations at home may be triggering the school response? Any physical situations that may be causing the trauma? What does the child like to do at home? What are their sleeping patterns? Getting enough sleep? Is mom or dad a short order cook? In other words, the child is demanding certain foods to be made just for them. How much screen time are they getting at home? Include all screen time-TV, movies, video games, mobile phone games, and Ipad time. Do they have any friends that they play with? What outside activities are they involved in? Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, church activities, Tae Kwon Do? Answers to these questions, can help you put a home plan together with the parents that would minimize screen time, allow for more social interaction, ramp up eating nutritious foods, build more time for relationships with the adults in the home and set boundaries at both home and school.
3. Collect and record data at school that monitors when, where, and what the emotionally charged events look like and sound like.
Begin having the teacher and wherever the child goes for instructional episodes, playground, PE, Art, Library, recess, etc. collect data of emotional outbursts. When is it happening? What happened before the event? What was going to happen next? We need to find out the function of behavior. Is it due to transitions, a fear of writing, not wanting to go outside, go to gym, music, art, not wanting to go home, unable to control themselves during major transitions-locker time, booting, coating, etc.? This information is imperative for the principal to find out. We have to know what the trigger is so that we can minimize it and catch the pot before it boils over. This should be done as a precursor to the official FUBA(Function of Behavior Assessment) that a Special Education assessment requires.
4. Accommodations, accommodations, accommodations!
Elicit the assistance of the OT, PT, Speech Therapist, Special Ed. teacher andany other itinerants who can help provide pre-screening to determine what special needs this child may have. Could it be a sensory issue? Do we need to make sure that clothes don’t have tags, not fitting tightly, they have earplugs or headphones to minimize loud sounds, etc. Do they need physical movement, opportunities to run in the gym, go on a fitness trail, stand on a balance board, etc. Do we need to make accommodations by keeping the child out of coating and booting situations by going somewhere else in school, having a time for them to run in the gym and get some exercise to blow off steam, fill a crate with books and have the child carry them to another teacher or to the library. Where is the child sitting? Perhaps a change in seating can be helpful? The things we do for our kids on the ASD spectrum work just as well for those students who are emotionally charged. Picture schedules, choice, alternative work spaces, quiet think about it spaces both in the room and outside of the room are necessary, explicit teaching of social skills is necessary, lots of physical exercise is necessary, consider installing a fitness trail in your school. Sometimes a change of schedule or teacher is warranted. Sometimes reducing a child’s schedule to half-day can be helpful in providing opportunity for the child to learn how to self-regulate. Sometimes a personality conflict with a teacher may warrant a change in classroom for a student(This is dependent on your policy and will require a lot of thought, discussion, and clear information for not only the receiving teacher but the teacher who used to have the student.)
5. Write a behavior plan.
Don’t wait for a Special Education referral. Write a behavior plan with all of the interventions that you are considering. Make sure that just like a 504 plan you detail what you expect the teacher to do, the student to do, the parent to do, and what you are going to do. This will be an invaluable document later when you are considering either a 504 evaluation or SPED eval. This will provide history of all of the things that you tried, what worked and what didn’t. Make sure that everyone is clear at the meeting regarding what their expectations are and what they will do to implement the plan. Make sure that you set a date for the next meeting. In the beginning, a weekly meeting is necessary to ensure smooth implementation of the plan and to make changes to the plan. Of course, if something implemented is not working, don’t wait until the weekly meeting to change it. Take action when necessary to ensure the safety of the emotionally charged child and the other children in the school and classroom. A good resource for different plans for different behaviors is The Teacher's Encyclopedia of Behavior Management: 100 Problems/500 Plans by Randy Sprick.
6. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Enough said. Probably the downfall of most behavior plans. Everyone needs to know what is happening and what the expectations are regarding the child. Your secretary, your child trauma team, parents, teachers, etc. If you have a runner, who responds? What should the teachers do when they see the child in the hallway? Do you reach under a table to get a child out from underneath it? Over communicating with everyone ensures that you have less mopping up to do later.
7. Assess and Reflect!
Schedule a time to reassess your PBIS plan and make sure that you have clear procedures determined, everyone's on board with implementation, culture for discipline is understood and the whole school sees it as a learning episode and not a punishment episode. Proactive work to set the stage, minimizes reactive time spent in situations later with emotionally charged children.
8. Take care of yourself and your staff!
Emotionally charged students can add a ton of emotional stress to you andyour staff. Make sure you are taking care of yourself-exercising, eating well, and getting adequate sleep. Reduce your stress after a particular emotional episode with a child by taking a walk, taking quiet time for reflection or being visible in classrooms to ensure calmness and that everything is okay.How can you help and assist your staff? How can you provide respite for the teacher and the students in the classroom to have some away time from the emotionally charged child? How can you inform the students to help and assist by not triggering the child? Consider a book study with your PBIS team of “Trauma Stewardship An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others” by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.
One year after I left my principalship, I asked the principal who followed me what the one thing was that surprised her about the work of a principal? She said, “The amount of time that one child can take out of your day.” I hope that some of these tips and hints will help you in minimizing the time that you have to spend in a negative fashion with an emotionally charged/traumatized child. Our job is to love and care for every single one of them, no matter how they come to us!