Today’s guest author is Jennifer Abbanat.
Jennifer is a wife and mom to three kids ages 18, 16, and 13. Jennifer is an advocate and voice for her neurodivergent children. She and her family live in Northern California.
One shift in our mindset can mean the difference in appropriately meeting a child’s needs or potential harm to a child if we ask the question “why” and “why now” (Dr. Stuart Shanker). This curiosity means the difference between a child receiving empathy and support versus punishment and consequences.
Again are these lucky or unlucky behaviors? Crying or sadness elicits a compassionate response from another. In other words, the child is capable of communicating a need that another person understands and can support. Compare this to a child who, when asked to solve a problem, doesn’t have the skill to complete it. Or perhaps the child has the skill sometimes but not when they are experiencing stress, at which time they are unable to communicate their need for help appropriately; it is this child that is seen as a bad kid. In frustration, this child may grunt, yell, crumple their paper up, throw the paper, kick the desk in front of them, or get out of their chair and push the chair over.
Notice each of the examples of unfortunate behaviors involve movement of some kind. Movement is the nervous system trying to regulate itself, a nervous system trying to recover. These behaviors may get a child in “trouble” and warrant a discussion with school staff and parents. The unlucky kids like Max Benson are repeatedly restrained at school for not following directions, not complying with demands, and not meeting the expectations of teachers and staff. Max, a 13-year-old autistic boy, was killed at school by the teachers in charge of protecting him.
On his last day at his new school, he had difficulty meeting adult expectations. Max was asked to comply with a demand from the staff, and he began to spit. Instantly he was taken down to the ground by several adults and held in a face-down restraint for one hour and 45 minutes. Despite his pleas for help, his cries to use the bathroom, and his vomiting on himself, the staff continued to hold him to the ground and told him “to calm down.” This inhumane act by adults is why we need to change our laws to protect all students. The Keeping All Students Safe Act (KASSA) HR3474/ S.1858 is a bill to protect students nationwide from restraint and seclusion.
The Keeping All Students Safe Act would:
- Ban almost all kinds of restraint and all kinds of seclusion across all 50 states.
- Require school districts to collect data to prevent further use of these harmful practices.
- Make it illegal for any school receiving federal funds to use restraints that could restrict a student’s ability to breathe, such as prone or supine restraint.
- Ban seclusion where students are confined to rooms or spaces alone.
This bill will save hundreds of thousands of students from trauma, physical harm, and even death.
Cornelius Frederick died by restraint at school for throwing a sandwich.
Our disabled children and our Black and brown students disproportionately receive this mistreatment. The Department of Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) found that over 122,000 students were restrained and/or secluded in the 2015-2016 school year. According to CRDC data, disabled students make up 12% of all students yet account for 71% of restrained students and 66% of secluded students.
The act of spitting by Max and throwing a sandwich by Cornelius led to these young kids’ deaths. What were their actions communicating? They were communicating stress. They were expressing and communicating an unsolved problem or unmet need. They were communicating the only way their bodies knew how in that stressful moment. Spitting is an act of movement trying to regain some self-regulation. Throwing is an act of movement, again, a way to self-regulate. Self-regulation helps bring our nervous systems out of a fight-flight-freeze survival response and bring our thinking brains back online. We may believe that these are inappropriate behaviors, but we have to look at them through the polyvagal lens of neural protection.
These kids’ bodies were already sensitized and easily triggered. We know that they were both autistic and were attending schools that were supposedly better trained and equipped than mainstream schools to work with kids who had challenging behavior. These were kids who walked around and existed in a hyperaroused state. The research shows that kids with these challenges are significantly impacted by their environments. An environment, such as school, often triggers kids. Kids might be hypervigilant due to their past experiences, neuroanatomy, and being misunderstood. These kids are always looking for safety. These kids need relationships to achieve their own regulation, a process called co-regulation. Self-regulation is not the same as self-control. It is also different from being compliant. Co-regulation is the foundation of healing. Dr. Stephen Porges says, “we are wired for co-regulation.”
Dr. Lori Desautels tells us that feeling safe and connected “literally drives learning.” She discusses the importance of these connections: “connection is what we do to survive, and we cannot live without each other.” In a recent interview with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint, Dr. Desautels said, “all chronic behavioral challenges in our children are regulation challenges. They are physiological challenges… and we must stop talking about behaviors.” She added, “we end up punishing behaviors, but behaviors are only signals… the misbehavior of troubled children is seldom what it first appears to be. Understanding this, I believe, is the only place to start. No child has a need to create a life of conflict (L. Tobin)”.
Kim Barthel, an Occupational Therapist, says, “our physiology cannot be separated from our emotions. Our emotions cannot be separated from our relationships. We are social creatures who need relationships.”
As what happens most often, these schools and teachers were working with an outdated model of behaviorism and the lens of compliance and control, which entails that children need consequences to stop exhibiting problem behaviors. But if we go back to Dr. Ross Greene’s philosophy that “kids do well if they can,” and if they can’t, it is because of an unmet need or lagging skill, these kids’ nervous systems have communicated the only way they know.
So when a child is already sensitized to a fight-flight-freeze response, and they lack many skills as observed through their challenging behaviors (remember, behaviors are just the tip of the iceberg Dr. Mona Delahooke). What lies underneath the observable behavior is what needs our attention so we can help them and co-regulate with them. Through co-regulation, kids can be in a physiological state of connection which leads to feelings of safety, and only then can the learning occur. Kids cannot learn when they live in their downstairs brains, which is often the case for many of our autistic kids and neurodiverse kids; this is their neuroanatomy. There is no changing their neuroanatomy. We must follow cues from kids. Working with kids brings us understanding and teaches us the way they learn. It is not a one-size-fits-all learning paradigm despite what our education system does daily. This alone causes many of our kids to experience feelings of being overwhelmed, inadequacy and shame just because they have a different learning style.
I knew Max Benson personally. He had a brilliant mind full of passion for justice and compassion for all living things. When our kids who need something different to be successful are dismissed, misunderstood, and/or punished, it leaves this window of mistreatment and abuse wide open, as was the case for Max, Cornelius, and so many other kids who have experienced seclusion and restraint. Max spitting was a clear signal to anyone properly trained and educated on the polyvagal theory and who understands regulation of brain states and these regulatory practices that his nervous system was automatically doing what it could in response to a perceived threat. Stress behaviors are outside the person’s control. These kids were so misunderstood that their survival body state was ignored by people who needed to understand this, which is why we must pass laws protecting our most vulnerable population to prevent these atrocities from happening again.
As Maya Angelou said, “when we know better, we do better.”
The research and evidence are clear. We know better, so we must pass laws that will keep all students safe by banning these harmful practices with zero therapeutic value and are clearly dangerous. They should not even be an option that adults can use against other individuals. It doesn’t go well when a dysregulated nervous system meets another one. As Dr. Bruce Perry, author of “What Happened To You?” says, “A regulated, calm adult can regulate a dysregulated, anxious child, but a dysregulated adult can never calm a dysregulated child.” It is the responsibility of the adults to be in a regulated physiological brain state so that they can properly support and meet a child’s needs, especially if the child becomes dysregulated. This can only occur through connection and a felt sense of safety. The adults in the room are responsible for the kids’ well-being. This includes sensing and understanding the unique signals a child has that communicate if the child is in an elevated or hyper-aroused so that the adults can support them through connection, compassion, and bringing a sense of safety to the child. Adults must meet the child’s needs at that moment through connection. Adults must understand how to “read” the child and the subtle cues that they need support. As we know, if the child’s needs are not met, or an adult is not attuned to the child, and they see non-compliance or misbehavior, the adult is most likely going to escalate a situation that only creates more threat to the child’s nervous system.
A child spitting or throwing something should never be an act that ends in losing their life. In fact, there is almost nothing that warrants a child losing their life due to an adult being dysregulated. Adults have fully developed brains. Children’s brains are not fully developed until they are in their late 20s. Adults have the responsibility, and if they don’t have the capability in a stressful situation, they need to walk away from the situation. Other adults need to demand that the dysregulated adult/s leave the situation. There were multiple adults involved with both Max and Cornelius’ deaths. Passing KASSA protects all students and educators. It takes these dangerous practices out of the equation when an adult faces a stressful situation. Now is the time to do better and pass this important law.