Compassion and positive relationships – not restraint

Today’s guest author is Marcella Morris.  Marcella has been a special education teacher for 15 years. She experienced a lens change after being introduced to the work of Dr. Mona Delahooke and finding better ways to work with students who exhibited challenging behaviors.

I am a special education teacher of 15 years and have seen and experienced many challenging behaviors in children with disabilities. For many years, my job was working with severely disabled students. In the past year, I have been working with children with lower support needs. These are academically capable students some of whom might be considered twice-exceptional. Many of my co-workers contend that these children should “know better” when it comes to challenging behavior. I am required to be trained to restrain and write behavior intervention plans.

One of my students this year, I will call “Andrew” is self-injurious when he becomes frustrated. He performs academically way above grade level. When he is happy he is delightful and engaging, but when he gets frustrated it gets to the point he cannot self-regulate. I have seen him scratch himself until he bleeds. I’ve seen him punch himself in the face repeatedly with full force, not even feeling pain. It is this student that prompted me to research challenging behaviors in students, and that is when I found Dr. Mona Delahooke’s book Beyond Behaviors.

Andrew’s previous teacher reported his destructive behaviors were “for attention”. Instinctually I knew this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dr. Delahooke’s book allowed me to think about this student and all the unknown factors that are coming into play when he injures himself while angry. I know that she advocates a thorough investigation of children with these types of behaviors in terms of medical, emotional and family history. While I am only one teacher with a heavy case-load of students, I realize my limitations in this area. The lessons I’ve taken away from Dr. Delahooke still allow me to know that I can approach him compassionately. The strategies of making a connection with him have helped him cope in situations and be brought back from the brink of self-harm.

Another student I work with I will call “Joseph” is severely ADHD and often gets sent out of his classes because he is so off task and disruptive. When he comes to my class for a behavior break, he oftentimes has a look of shame on his face. I sit with him and tell him I believe in him, that he is good, that he has a good heart and he can make better choices. He sometimes puts his head down and cries for a few minutes. When he recovers, he gets up and goes back to class in a much better place. Again, thanks to Dr. Delahooke’s book, I just feel free to be compassionate and positive with these students. It is like what she has explained in her book has finally confirmed what I’ve known all along.

All kids need love. It’s not that consequences should be thrown out the window, but when you connect with kids, it changes the whole dynamic of how they behave.

Finally, I want to use one more student I will call “Jane”, to illustrate the impact of Dr. Delahooke’s work. Jane has been diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. She has frequent episodes of displaying socially inappropriate behaviors like picking her nose in front of others (she is in second grade). She will blurt out mean words to her peers and just last week she was sent home for slapping two different classmates on the same day. Recently, I invited Jane and a girl she chose from class to come to eat lunch in my classroom. My purpose was to see if I could get her to have some kind of healthy interaction with another peer. I was nervous because she has been in so much trouble lately and has had somewhat elevated aggression towards her peers. In past conversations with her though, I’ve noted how she laments the lack of friends. In the past, I might have chalked it up to a natural consequence of how she treats others. Now, I realize that maybe, just maybe she needs to be shown how to connect with others in a healthy way. Our lunch date went well. And while it may be too soon to know if this will impact her behaviors in the future, to me…its worth a try. Again, I credit this compassionate, yet informative book based on science that Dr. Delahooke wrote.

This will be my last year as a special education teacher. Unfortunately, I am working in a system that fails many of our most vulnerable children. While I have tried to advocate to change, I am afraid the system is slow to evolve. I hope more professionals will read Dr. Delahooke’s book. I will continue to teach children, but in a more specialized setting (reading interventionist) where I am not expected to write ineffective behavior interventions plans, and worse…restrain children. I refuse to do it, plain and simple.

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