People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed…

that reminds me of an old farmer friend of mine in Illinois, who used to say he never could understand why the Lord put a curl in a pig’s tail; it did not seem to him to be useful or ornamental, but he guessed the Lord knew what he was doing when he put it there. ” –Abraham Lincoln, to a soldier at the Soldier’s Home, 1864

I called a good friend after I read on Facebook about troubles her daughter was having at school.

Her child was made to feel unwelcome in the school community because of her frequent meltdowns. The little girl is very bright, a lovely little person. She’s 8, which in my estimation puts her in the category of “still figuring things out.” It’s true that by now, she’s too old to scream and cry. Yet she still does it. So, I wonder why?

Her teacher’s comment “She melts down when she doesn’t have direction” is what made me pick up the phone.

Children’s behavior serves a purpose. It’s easy and natural to talk around it “She’s too old to cry like that.” or blame, “She’s spoiled” or reject “I don’t want her here, she’s disruptive.”

"I see no difference," replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. "This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of."

“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

Or you could remember that you work in education and this is one of the large problems that come with working with kids. Sometimes you find childish behavior in children.

Bill Nason is one of my favorite writers on children’s behavior. His perspective is useful and dispassionate.  He doesn’t judge or talk about poorly parented children. He looks at the behavior. Why would someone scream and cry and meltdown? If you are a teacher, or work with kids, or have children with social delays or challenging behavior, or rigidity–Read Bill Nason. He’s enormously useful.

All behavior serves a function (purpose) for the person. Behavior occurs for a reason(s). It serves a function for the child.” –Bill Nason.

Somewhere along the way, school changed from a place where kids learned and grew up into a place that kids had to learn fast and by a certain time and if they didn’t, then it was a big problem.  If you didn’t have your reading sorted by 1st grade, it’s a problem.  If you have your reading sorted, but you don’t know how to get along with people, that’s a problem.

Kids don’t work like that. They grow at different speeds, making big leaps and then nothing for a while and then these marvelous competencies. Or baffling behaviors. Their brains are amazing, but children’t don’t learn when they are stressed or frightened or overwhelmed.

Don’t forget your child is a child. You can’t program them or dump information in neatly and have it come out. That’s an adult learner, someone who has their personal habits sorted, is done with the messy work of growing up and is there to discretely take the information and move through the curriculum.

I’m a school librarian, but I’m not there just to check out a book or clean the library. I am with them, it’s a privilege to be close to children and have them trust you.

Do you know what is great about kids? When they have a hurt, they do think a band aid fixes it. That’s cool. When do you lose that?

Lots of the time, when they were in the library, they did not find a book. But they always found someone that looked at them like they were a little person and wondered what they were thinking about it and doing and I engaged with them. I wanted to draw them out, see what they were about and then we went from there. The books would come, the books are a long game. Childhood and development is a long game. When a child reveals themselves to you, good or bad, that’s information for you. It’s nothing more than what they are ready to show you at this time.

In heaven’s economy nothing is wasted. That meltdown? That outburst? That’s information. It is not an indictment of you, it’s an invitation to learn about a unique person.

I was lucky that I was not as directed and managed the way classroom teachers are. I was not burdened by parent expectations, state charters. The school administration supported me in letting the kids play and wonder. I wish that modern education allowed for childish behaviors in the classroom and less of the directed learning and assessment. Children that don’t fit the group are made to move. They change schools, they get labels, they start to see themselves as bad or broken.  Autism affects 1-68 children now. Or does it really? Is it just a category that has lots of room for uniquely developing kids, a space that has funding and services for kids that need an extra accommodation or more attention?

I hope that my little friend finds adults that help her find her way instead of shaming her and pushing her out, because a real teacher is someone that works with the whole child and not just the easy parts. A real school is one that supports a teacher and gives her/him the freedom and resources to make those connections and build those supports into the classroom. Once the stress is removed, the child can learn again and move forward.

All behavior serves a purpose. Do you have a child in your class that is driving you and everyone else bananas? You can work the problem. You can turn it around. That child is doing you a favor by giving you a road map to how he/she perceives the world.  That outraged little being is someone that is still trying to grow up and do the hard thing of getting along in a group or managing something overwhelming and you are the perfect person to help them grow up better. You got this, the first step is to draw the child in and keep them close to your heart.

The good Lord knew what he was doing when he put the curl in the pigs tail and when he put childish behavior in children.


Sample Letter to Classroom Teacher

Brady starts 4th grade next year and is in a great place. Our school is moving to a new building and he will have many new faces in the classroom. I won’t work at the school next year, so he won’t have me in the building to advocate for him. This change comes at a good time, he does not need me to take this role anymore, he is self-aware and can practice advocating for himself.

Notes for 4th Grade

Brady started school at STLC when he was 4. He feels safe, accepted and competent. Brady loves school.

Brady was identified as having Aspergers by a developmental pediatrician when he was in 1st grade, via the recommendation of his teacher. In the spring of 2014, Brady was diagnosed as “autistic’ by a developmental pediatrician and has an IEP. The word “Aspergers” is not a valid diagnosis anymore.

As a student with Aspergers, Brady is raised with acceptance and support. He has self-knowledge of what Aspergers means for his learning style and viewpoint. I share my experiences as an adult on the Autism spectrum (undiagnosed) and that lets him know that he is just one of many. The reality that he is a normal person with a unique point of view is mentally healthy for him.

Brady is gregarious, cheerful, easy going and has many friends. Brady participates in activities and socializes with many people. I do not think he is socially delayed, he has caught up with his peers.

Brady has classroom and learning challenges from Aspergers that are ongoing and present strongly at the beginning of the school year when so many things are new and then in the spring he does much better as the work of processing the large pieces are out of the way.

His challenges are:

  • managing novelty
  • transitions
  • processing new information
  • keeping up with the group
  • comprehending open ended information
  • organization of self
  • expressive language

Brady likes to get away from the group and take breaks to process information—this might be a few times a day in the beginning of the school year or you might see more in the afternoon as his energy flags. This is essential for him, but it should be respectful of class goals as well and not a distraction or undermining your classroom. You can find that balance with him. Brady does not expect you to treat him as less capable, he will get to know you and as he understands you and the classroom and the goals, he will perform better. We say “Autism is a reason, not an excuse.

He  struggles with novelty–because he has to process everything individually and misses the big picture. As the relationship builds, he will understand you and be able to communicate. This is expected. He has felt this every year and he always gets his legs after a bit. In a predictable setting, his performance will be very good. When he has his processed the situation, he can use intelligence, good memory, deep focus and willingness. Once you get to know him you will see his wheels turning or mired as his tokens fall out and he flounders. It’s interesting.

He has an average (non autistic) tendency to talk to his friends or let his attention wander or not listen if he is excited. This is not autism, this is immaturity and it is average with respect to his peers. I’ve witnessed it at school and I’ve drawn a line between the disability (processing) and the immaturity. He tends to misbehave more if he does not have a boundary or a parameter.

Aspergers gives him many advantages. He loves rules, order, he likes to do the right thing. He is very logical. He has a sweet purity and a silly side. He does not have any obsessions or special interest, rather a deep pleasure in physical beauty, tender with animals, patterns, color, science and math.

The best way to motivate Brady is with logic and fairness. As an Aspie, he takes negativity or temper personally. He will match it with challenging behaviors that will be intense and pointless. Logic works better. We talk to him like he is an adult and use reason, not punishments to correct his behaviors. If you explain your motivations, he will come around. We expect him to live in this world and support his teacher in her leadership and communications. I try not to “give him a pass.” He’s been sent to the principal and written up. We don’t regard that as “negative.” We regard temper or cutting remarks or an impatient or angry face as negative (and human, we do it to him, it just does not work if you are trying to get him to change or cooperate).

We tell Brady he is average and ask him to be group minded and respectful of other people.  He is used to tolerating discomfort and knows that strong feelings come and go. We love him just the way he is and expect him to be a great member of your class community.

Asperger Learning disabilities:

Fine motor issues, poor handwriting – we ask that his writing be evenly sized and spaced and this paper be clean and not crumpled or scribbled on. His handwriting was poor and we hope for average. This was a major focus in 3rd grade and he made great strides.

Difficulty asking for help when he needs help – He has speech therapy for expressive language. What you will see: He might not understand an assignment or directions and might sit and do nothing. He might have frustration and challenging behavior when he is confused. What he is supposed to do is ask for help, or if he cannot get his words out, he is supposed to write a question mark next to the question he does not know how to approach. This was a major focus in 3rd grade and he made great strides.

Mono channel – People with Aspergers process things one at a time instead of taking in the big picture so if he is looking at the clock he will miss the critical thing.  This is not something I expect you to accommodate, only to have a compassionate perspective about, it is not just immaturity, it is a learning disability. However, the consequence is on him and we expect him to compensate for it. Learning from mistakes or missing out might be a good way for him to heighten awareness of this disability of his.

Open ended questions: Brady has a hard time writing essays or open ended multi sentence assignments or verbally answering open ended questions. In a crowded classroom it might be even harder for him to do. This is something we ask him to try his best on, stay “group minded”, keep his challenging behavior in check and make a plan to take it home, do his best, break it into parts, or create a plan. This is something he is still “poor” on and has made the slowest strides with, but onward and upward. If there is a writing project, than perhaps special ed can tackle this in a small group setting with more support.

Literal – he is literal.

Executive function – his procedural memory is stronger than his ability to organize himself so he needs strategies for organizing his tasks—he might draw a blank or become useless when he has a new task, unable to figure out an approach and will need support. This is something for the IEP or special ed perhaps? Not sure when it would come up in the classroom. This is average for his age, but a reality of Aspergers. This is something we work on at home all the time.

Does not pick up on social cues or learn from watching other people without conscious effort, so if everyone is lining up, he will not necessarily start lining up too. It is more likely he will line up because he was directly told, or it is the routine that was established by direct instruction. It is equally likely because of his immaturity that he will not comply, but then we revert to the challenging behavior sheet and hope for better. Not picking up on social cues sometimes triggers the challenging behaviors.

Spacing out and doing nothing in the afternoon. Not sure what to do about this, but recognize he does it. I’m not a fan of it, but at the same time I’m not sure if that is Aspergers (flagging energy, processing) or lazy habits. I think as an adult he will have more discretion over his schedule so try to just keep an eye on is he learning and meeting his bench marks and loosen expectations when his energy is flagging. I gave him intense criticism for this (logically) last year and saw some improvement but still not impressed overall. Best accommodation might be not expect great performance from open ended tasks in the afternoon or at least have a compassionate perspective that this is not his most productive time of day.

Successful teaching style:

  • Predictable day
  • Clear expectation of what comes next. He loves to have a pattern or order to his day
  • Give him time to process new information
  • Recognize that he is sometimes oblivious (mono channel) and take a compassionate perspective on that but apply logical consequence
  • Explicit expectation or direct instruction with no assumption that he will intuit your meaning from non verbal cues.
  • Break things down into steps or procedures for an open ended question/assignment or refer to special ed or homework, it is much harder for him to do some things in a group setting because there is too much going on and his processing is overwhelmed

Plan for Managing Challenging Behaviors:

  1. Stay group minded and respectful of the classroom goals
  2. When Brady has temper, make a hand signal and take a walk
  3. Retreat to a quiet place and do a quiet activity (read, Sudoku)

Brady’s challenging behaviors are short lived and intense. Brady does not hold grudges, is not particularly sensitive or anxious. His  social processing challenge is ongoing. If things happen too fast, unexpected deviation from schedule, loud noises or hunger/tired you will see it. This is an aspect of his Aspergers and it does not turn off or go away.  An easy way to think about his processing is to think about it like a blood sugar, and if it gets out of balance, he has a reaction.

Typical warning signs that Brady will manifest challenging behaviors:

  • Change in his tone of voice
  • Appearing tired
  • Growling, scowling
  • Shrugging shoulders up towards ears, making a face, panting and freeze posture
  • Manic energy
  • Crowding/invading space of others
  • Not responding to you when you ask him to stop, persisting in distracting behavior
  • Repetitive movements or actions

This is what we want him to do when he feels his “tokens falling out”

  • Asking for ‘down time’ –this is great if he asks
  • Wanting to engage in the special interest –this is likely reading a book or sudoko, helps him get it together
  • Transition from challenging activity, like writing to PE. He has a hard time writing but he likes PE so he will likely move on
  • Take a walk
  • Ask for help, use his words

Brady recognizes logically that he has challenging behaviors and that they are distracting and alienating to other people. However, at the time the challenging behavior manifests it is too late for him to do much except take a walk to get himself back into a sociable and “group minded” or non distracting frame of mind.

We call “challenging behaviors” evidence of “temper” and put the responsibility of Brady to manage his temper so that he is showing self-leadership, respect for himself and respect for others around him.

We ask his teachers and peers to take a compassionate viewpoint to his challenging behaviors and credit him for how far he has come.

Brady does not sulk or hold grudges. He is not very verbally expressive and when he has a challenging behavior or is tired, he cannot express himself. When he is very frustrated he will use his hands, or shout or slam things. These outbursts do not last long and the best thing to do is to encourage him to take a walk outside, offer a benign expression and then when he comes back endorse him for making an effort to manage his tokens and say “let’s start over again.” I don’t  usually ask what happened as it is easier to just move on.

He is concerned with social justice and if someone in class is experiencing shame or distress, Brady might have an outburst as well. He picks up on shame or cruelty and is bothered by it but not be able to tell you why. Sometimes when I see him looking angry and it does not compute for his day, when I look around I see someone nearby is hurting but he couldn’t tell me. We address that and offer comfort and then he recovers.

Challenging Behavior Triggers

  • Novelty
  • Deviation from schedule
  • Loud noise
  • Mint (smell)
  • Shame
  • Excitement
  • Hunger/tired