Bring it on, Bullies: Fighting Back With Empathy

We sit in a large semi-circle as the professor walks the room and tosses out discussion-questions to the class: “What is one belief you hold true about human nature?”

The previous questions had made me ponder and consider for a length of time before I was able to answer constructively, as they are designed to do.  However, this one, for me, was simple.  My hand shot up, “I have always been a believer in the innate goodness of people.” I said.   And it’s true.  I have always thought that people are largely caring and compassionate.  They most often strive to be their best and do right by others.  I think that unless you are a sociopath- which is rare- we all have a sense of decency and consideration for our fellow humans. Unforeseen challenges arise in everyone’s life that have the ability to derail us from this path and bring out the very worst in us.  However, if given the opportunity to heal and move forward, we strive to jump back on that better path again. 

While yes, I believe we are all essentially good and endeavor to be kind, we don’t often understand how.  I don’t mean that you don’t know how to click on the “donate” button to an important charity or let the mom with the screaming kid cut in front of you in line so she can just get that kid out of there.  I mean, we don’t know how to be emotionally kind.

“Emotional kindness” is the ability to use empathy and perspective-taking to understand another’s feelings and behaviors in a certain situation.

What is misunderstood by many is the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

I have a thought- “My husband just left allllll the dishes in the sink for ME to wash!!! What am I, his maid?!?!?”

I have an emotion associated with that thought- My anger is at a 10!!!

I then, consequently, have a behavior associated with that emotion- I make snide, passive-aggressive remarks to make sure he understands how truly pissed off I am.

Now, I’ve created a situation where we are both upset.  I’ve gotten myself super pissed off and ready to fight and my less than stellar behavior has pissed him off too.  

What if I had tried to take his perspective and attempted to empathize with him in that moment?  What if I had used emotional kindness?

If I had really stopped and reflected on the situation, I would have noticed that he did seem extra tired when he came home that day.  I would have reminded myself that he almost ALWAYS washes the dishes, so something was probably on his mind or else he would have done them.  I would have understood that leaving the dishes in the sink had nothing to do with me personally and that I knew in my heart of hearts that he did not think of me as his maid.

When I rearranged my thoughts, my emotions calmed down, and instead of being passive-aggressive, I gave him a hug, walked to the sink and did the dishes without another word.

Bullying hasn’t been a huge issue in our home yet, but we haven’t escaped its grip entirely either.  It is one of my biggest parenting fears for both of my children, especially Man.  When you are raising a child with differences, whether subtle and somewhat undetectable or glaring and overt- Man probably falls somewhere in the middle- it puts him or her at greater risk.  However, if we are being totally honest, unfortunately, every child is at risk nowadays.  Whether the parent of a child with special needs or the parent of your average Joe, I am definitely not the only parent who worries about their child being bullied.

 But what if we tackled bullying with emotional kindness? This is what I have been trying to instill in both of my children lately.

When one of them comes home saddened and deflated by a challenging altercation with another student, my initial instinct is to go nuclear on that kid.  My mama bear instinct in full effect, I want to speak harsh words to this young child and tell them to leave my kid alone!!

Buuuuut, then I calm down and try and use it as a learning opportunity.  I let them be hurt by it, because, of course, being teased, or “burned” as the kids like to call it, isn’t fun and it’s very upsetting.  However, I then try to teach them to think of what the “bully” might have been feeling at that time.  As a believer in innate goodness, most likely, that kid is having a rough time of his own and bullying is the only way he knows to make himself feel better.  I show them what empathy feels like and together we work on finding peace with the situation through increasing our emotional kindness.

Bullying at this young age is often a result of not having the skills to express your true feelings and emotions.  Often, children cannot even identify their emotions, let alone talk about them rationally.  Starting to teach our children at a young age to understand that there is always an emotion behind a behavior is a vital skill with lifelong benefit.  It certainly doesn’t eliminate the hurt of being bullied, but it allows them to minimize its overall lasting effect.  It allows them to depersonalize the negative behaviors of others, a skill which will forever be of benefit to them.

Please note, this post relates to general bullying as defined by, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”  It does not pertain to harassment, which is a prosecutable offence.  0000000

Why I expect My Son’s School to Provide More Than Just The Requisite Support

“We provide the requisite support.”

This is the statement that the school principal made to me when I expressed concern over Man’s participation in an upcoming school event.  Our school does a wonderful, day long, event that involves relays and egg tosses and a multitude of other team building activities that promote sportsmanship and working cooperatively.

The kids love it, they look forward to it all year.  Why wouldn’t they?  A day of no classes where they get to run around and play games all day.  Eat ice pops and laugh with their friends.  Feel part of a group and relish in the power of team work.  Sounds amazing, right?  What child wouldn’t look forward to a day like that!?

Man. Man doesn’t look forward to this day at all.

Sports and other physical activities are challenging for him.  He’s not the fastest, slickest guy on the field.  And even when he’s participating in a seemingly innocuous activity like an egg toss, his Sensory Processing Disorder makes it extraordinarily challenging.  When kids are running and screaming around him, his body gets overstimulated and basically shuts off.  He drops the egg and lets his team down.

This day, though the best day for most kids, is one of the worst days for him.

As his parent, I dress him up, give him a little pep talk and send him on his way to do his best.  I think it’s important he learns to participate and that he understand that trying his best is good enough. I also refuse to raise a quitter.  Not every activity that he is expected to participate in is going to be his favorite or something he is good at.  It’s important he understand this early on and learns to try his best to rise to the occasion.  And who knows, maybe he will get a surge of “sportiness” and help his team to victory.

As his parent, I’m also going to do whatever I can within my power to advocate for my son’s success.  That’s why I e mailed the school and asked if there was any way they could create one, “non-sports-based activity” for that day.  Just one thing that would help a “non-sporty” kid feel like he or she could contribute to his or her team in a meaningful way. I pointed out that teamwork can just as easily be promoted through LEGO tower building or some other less physical event.  I highlighted that while I valued their support of Man’s academic success, it seemed that their support of children with special needs did not to extend outside of the classroom as much as they thought it did.

Not unexpectedly, their answer was no.  “We provide the requisite support for your son.”

That statement was like a bullet to my heart.  You see, as many parents of children with special needs can attest to, “providing the requisite support” is NOT the same as promoting an environment where we let our children shine and thrive for their differences.  Today, with the statistics of children diagnosed with any number of behavioral, learning, and/or emotional disorders rising dramatically from year to year, different is the new same.

I have an expectation, and maybe it’s an unfair one, that my school go beyond just providing what is required of them by law.  I have an expectation that they encourage an environment that allows children to be celebrated for their individuality.  I have an expectation that they demonstrate how some kids might not excel in one area but might kick butt in another completely different arena.  Teaching teamwork is showing children that they all have something unique to contribute.  It’s allowing each team member to be called upon for his or her strengths and carried by others when he is weak.  It’s making sure that every member of that team feels the power of their own personal contribution to that team’s success.  It’s not creating an environment where someone feels less than all day, especially a young child.

I want all children, typical and atypical, to feel the glow of success within the walls of their school.  I want them all to be celebrated for their assets and to understand that they won’t be defined by their weaknesses.  I want schools to go above and beyond what is just legally required of them for the development, success, and benefit of every student that walks through their door.  I want them promote acceptance and understanding.

Who knows, maybe Man will toss the winning ring, or hop across the finish line just in time to win it for his team.  Maybe he will have the best day ever.  But that doesn’t mean that my expectations of his school will change.  It doesn’t mean that I will stop carrying the message and advocating for the support and celebration of his differences.

When Sensory Eating Turns Into Failure to Thrive: A Horror Story

As a student of Mental Health Counseling, I often think of a diagnosis as a tree trunk.  There is one, solid stable disorder planting its roots and from the symptoms of the disorder, a branchlike network of additional challenges and diagnoses blossom.  I have discussed Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) before (Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder), this diagnosis has planted a giant Redwood like tree trunk in our front yard.  There are a multitude of symptoms that have allowed additional problems and disorders to branch and bloom, casting a large shadow over our entire house.  One such symptom is sensory eating, and from this symptom a tangled grid of branches has formed to develop a new and even scarier diagnosis, Failure to Thrive (FTT).

In my post, Sensory Eating and Picky Eating are NOT the Same (Picky Eating and Sensory Eating Are NOT The Same! A Guide to Improving Feeding in Sensory Eaters), I discuss the differences between a picky eater and a sensory eater.  The major difference, the most significant and frightening, is that sensory eaters would rather go hungry than eat a food that would disturb their bodies fragile peaceful state.  Man is a sensory eater.  Most people assume that that means that he can’t eat certain textures.  We all know people who can’t eat tapioca pudding or cottage cheese without having a visceral reaction.  Personally, I couldn’t eat shrimp until well into adulthood because that rubbery crunch gave my body the heebie-jeebies.  But for Man, it’s flavor intensity.  He cannot eat foods that have too much flavor.  When he was three-and-a-half he mistakenly grabbed a garlic flavored cracker off the counter and before he could even finish chewing the first bite he broke out into a cold sweat, his eyes began to water, and his entire face turned bright red.  His body was literally rejecting the flavor.  He couldn’t eat for the rest of the night.

Years of having such extremely intense bodily reactions to flavors have naturally resulted in extremely poor eating habits and dread around food and mealtime.  I mean, if every time you put food into your mouth it made your body feel pain, would you want to eat?  In our house, mealtime brings fear and anxiety, not pleasure and excitement.

You see, from day one, every bite of every meal that has gone into his mouth has been prompted by me.

“Eat, Man.”

“Take that bite, Man.”

“No, you’re not finished yet, Man.”

I can remember when he was younger, I would bring him his breakfast on a Monday morning and think, “Here we go, 21 meals and the week will be over.”

Meals can take upwards of an hour-and-a-half.  He laboriously chews each tiny little bite, bites small enough that he really won’t have to actually taste the food, while I would stand there, trying to stay calm, encouraging and supportive.  If I walked away, he would simply not eat.  I’ve tried everything, and there have been times of improvement.  He does eat some new foods, but ultimately, the quantity he eats remains the same; poor.

After many years, I decided that I did need to walk away and just let him be.  Mealtimes were causing me such stress, anger, fear, and resentment that I didn’t want to be around him at all anymore.  I forced myself to accept that he was going to eat what he was going to eat and that was going to have to be ok.  I couldn’t help him in any way if I was internally fuming and freaking out three meal times every day.

That tactic worked for a while, he wasn’t growing a lot, but it was steady growth at his own slow rate.  That was until our most recent visit, where we found out that he has begun to lose weight.  Now, a seven-year-old boy that only weighed 38 pounds, was a mere 36.5.  This has brought out the anxiety that I have tried to keep in check for all these years.

When we heard the news, it sent me into a frenzy and I yelled at him.

No, I screamed, I threatened, and basically tried to instill a fear in him that would force him to eat better, that would allow me to remain in my protective “Man eating bubble.”

I am ashamed, and it brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart to know that I made him cry so much about something that he really has no control over.

I vowed to get my fear in check and help him in a calm and loving way.  And that worked… for a few days.

Can you imagine what it feels like to have to remind your child to take every bite of every meal that he has ever eaten in his entire life?  It’s exhausting.

Can you feel the anxiety through the screen as I even type those words?  It’s palpable.

Like an alcoholic picking up a drink after a period of sobriety, I picked up my anxiety about his eating right where I had left it.  It has now intensified to such a severe level where every morning I’m yelling in a way that humiliations me to admit.

Every meal I look at his gaunt body across the table.  I see the dark rings of malnourishment under his eyes. I watch him pull up the pants that are sized for a child half his age as they slip down while he trudges across a room and I yell.  I yell out of fear.  Fear for his health.  Fear for his growth.  Fear for my own sanity.

Mostly, I just feel and incredible guilt every day.  This is obviously my fault because I can’t handle making sure he adequately eats each meal.  This is obviously my fault because I’m not finding the magic cure that will make this all better.  I’m obviously only making it worse by revealing my anxiety and fear to him in such a loud way and angry.

I just wish I could find a chainsaw strong enough to cut the branches of FTT off at the root, because right now, I’m terrified that this tree will fall and crush us underneath it’s weight.

FTT

Your Child is Too Smart for an IEP

“I have good new for you!  We are declassifying your son!”

This statement was recently conveyed to a friend by a member of the Special Education Department at her child’s school… and it was decidedly NOT good news.

This has been a running theme with many of my friends and fellow special needs mama warriors lately: declassification from Special Education and the removal of their child’s IEP because recent test scores show that they are “too smart for an IEP.”

It’s infuriating.  If you think about the way the ADHD brain functions this statement doesn’t even make sense!

This very concept has struck a chord of fear within me.  Am I going to walk into Man’s next meeting and fight to maintain the Special Education services that he desperately needs just because he happens to be producing grade level work?

Most children with ADHD and other behavioral and emotionally manifested disorders are, in fact, quite smart.  We had Man tested recently and, as expected, the scores show that he is NOT intellectually disabled.  They indicated that his IQ is adequate to maintain age appropriate, grade level work, if not work that even is somewhat above grade level.

However, his ADHD makes that impossible.

My incredibly smart and gifted son can program a computer yet can’t find his way out of a paper bag.

Why?

Because the ADHD brain lacks executive functioning skills.  This means he can’t organize his classwork, he doesn’t know where or when to start an assignment, or how to pace himself so his brain doesn’t fatigue a third of the way through.  He can’t remember the materials he is supposed to gather, or if he was supposed to do it in pencil or crayon.  He can’t plan each step out or problem solve if he get’s himself stuck.  Therefore, it doesn’t matter what his IQ is, he cannot use his intelligence effectively without the help of the Individualized Education Plan that creates goals and accommodations to account for his lack of Executive Functioning.

My incredibly talented and smart child has a command of math that is beyond his years, but some days he can’t add 2+2.

Why?

Because the ADHD brain lacks the ability to regulate emotions.  This means that if he is feeling too anxious, his brain might just shut down.  If he is extremely angry or sad it can affect him to the point of being unable to complete classroom work that day.  If he is tired or overwhelmed simple tasks begin to seem insurmountable and he just gives up and walks away.  Therefore, his excellent math skills don’t matter, he cannot use them effectively without the help of the Individualized Education Plan that creates goals and accommodations to help him with emotional regulation on the days when he simply cannot do it for himself.

Some days, all you see is Man’s ADHD.  It’s worn like a badge, displayed like an eye sore across his chest.  Everything he does, everything he touches, is affected by it.  Without an IEP in place every day the bad days wouldn’t just be bad, they would be disastrous.

Some days, Man’s ADHD is imperceptible.  A mere hint showing itself at random, innocuous moments, leaving him undisturbed and highly functional.  Without an IEP in place every day these great days would only be somewhat satisfactory.

The only thing consistent about ADHD is its inconsistency.  Frustratingly, its symptoms will come and go without rhyme or reason.  Some days its sufferers will be super-starts, far exceeding the expectations of those around them.  Other days, they will be deceived by their very own brains, and even the simplest of tasks will seem impossible. Therefore, the accommodations and support that an IEP provides must be a constant.  The solid steadiness of that IEP is a vital guide for grounding these fragile, ever fluctuating students and their teachers.

No parent wants their child labeled or “classified.”  If we could fix our children and make their brains function perfectly, we absolutely would.  However, you are not calling us with “good news” when you tell us that you want to eliminate the services that they rely on to manage school successfully.  You are essentially removing their lifeline to victory.

Being intelligent and being able to effectively use that intelligence are two entirely different things.  Intelligence is so much more than just being “smart.”  It’s a combination of a thousand distinctive characteristics that must all be operating in synch with one another, like a well-oiled machine.  ADHD takes a huge wrench and just gingerly tosses it into that machine.  It doesn’t matter how “smart” a child is, an IEP works as a tool to eliminate that wrench so our children can effectively use their intelligence.

I understand that a 504 is a valuable resource.  It makes sense that schools want our children to thrive in the least restrictive environment.  However, academic demands change drastically from year to year, as does a child’s social and emotional growth.  The rush to declassify, an act that is virtually impossible to reverse, prior to a child demonstrating long-term, consistent success across a few grades seems drastic and irresponsible.  We should be more cautious with our children, as even the slightest inkling of failure and struggle can have dire consequences with this population.

So no, I refuse to accept that any child is too smart for an IEP.

Child with learning difficulties

In Defense of the “Problem Child”

Yesterday evening I read an article in the New York Times entitled, “The ‘Problem Child’ Is a Child, Not a Problem.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/opinion/collaborative-problem-solving-children.html) It discussed how the appropriate method of behavior modification should be used by teachers to help “problem” children fare better within the classroom, especially in the earliest, most fragile years of their education.  The article itself was fabulous, and extremely validating to parents of children with emotional and behavioral challenges.  It suggested that teachers receive more training in adequate techniques to prevent situations like the one highlighted in the article—the case of an eight-year-old child having long-term emotional effects, subsequently resulting in educational challenges, from preschool teachers managing his behavior improperly.  It emphasized that poor behavioral management in early childhood can have lifelong consequences.

Unfortunately, I made the big, no HUGE, mistake of reading the comments.  I have never been so blown away by a lack of empathy, and sheer ignorance about this population.  I am so angered and sad, but mostly, I’m disappointed and fearful.  I’ll be the first to admit that much of the challenge with children like this is their behavioral functioning.  However, another significant challenge is that the driving force behind such behavior is completely misunderstood.  Here, right in front of me, was the glaring proof of such stereotypes- and not just any proof, but proof presented in well thought out and intelligent comments in the New York Times.

I am ashamed to admit it, but often, when I am out in public with Man, I find myself making justifications for his behavior in one way or another- An eye roll to a person here to indicate, “I know, I know, I can’t believe he is doing that either!”  or a harsher than necessary talking-to so others around me don’t think that I’m just ignoring such behavior—a behavior, mind you, that he likely cannot control and that my stern warning will do nothing to deter.  I then find myself feeling terribly guilty- why did I feel the need to defend anything my son is doing to anyone, nonetheless a stranger?  Well, the comments section of this article just reinforced exactly why I feel such a need.

The comments fell into a few horrendous categories:

1)      The “bad children come from bad parents” type of comments.  I hear this often, that a child’s behavior is the direct result of bad parenting.  While yes, it is true that sometimes my seven-year-old simply acts like a seven-year-old and, in that moment, I probably don’t handle it to the very best of my abilities—I mean seriously, who parents perfectly all the time?  This is NOT what is going on for a child with ADHD.  Most of the parents that I know personally—and the thousands that I interact with regularly as part of the vast support networks on social media—work tirelessly on their child’s behavior. We use behavior charts, talk to doctors, use family trainers, send our kids to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and are just generally on their cases about every move they make all the time.  We are stellar parents who have literally tried everything, including medication in many cases, and we still come up short.  Why?  Because our children are just wired that way and no matter how hard we work, we cannot completely deter the behaviors that come along with ADHD and other similar disorders.

 

2)      The “parents should help the child, it’s not the teacher’s responsibility,” type comments.  Most parents are doing all that they can with the resources available to them to help their child succeed in and out of the classroom.  This is true for both the parents of special needs children and typical children.  Even the mother of the child in the article stated that she would leave her child at school and then go and cry with worry.  It is overwhelming to have a child like this in a way that is unimaginable to others unless they are going through it themselves.  Diagnoses that largely manifest themselves behaviorally are incredibly challenging to treat.  Like a medical diagnosis, it cannot be treated in isolation; for behavior modification to be successful, every person that works with that child must be on the same page and CONSISTENT.  I often say that “consistent” is my least favorite word- you try getting teachers, coaches, babysitters, grandparents, etc. to follow a specific plan on how to reinforce positive behavior in your kid.  Any slight deviation in the behavior plan can have dire results.  Something as simple as you attending to your other child and not providing the proper, immediate reinforcement can set you back days or even weeks.  A child is at school for a good portion of their day; if the teacher does not understand the behavior plan then the child might as well not have it.  Additionally, many of these behaviors directly impede their learning, and therefore require the direct attention of the teacher, the person who is responsible for educating them within the classroom.

in defense of 

3)      Which leads me to the next grouping of comments, the “children like this shouldn’t be in class with regular students,” type comments.  These were the most hurtful comments of all.  I completely understand where the parents were coming from; the comment was always based in the idea that these students take away from the learning experience of other, more typical children.  That’s just disappointing and short sighted.  Let me be clear; I am hyper-aware of how Man’s behavior affects others, especially his peers, but separating him is not the answer… for any child.  My son teaches others empathy and understanding.  He shows them that not all children are alike.  He demonstrates daily how one can overcome struggle.  He provides his classmates with a true cooperative learning experience, as learning to work together with a variety of different people is vital to lifelong success.  He is a good friend, and a kind hearted and genuine child.  He adds to the educational experience of other students by requiring their help with reading and handwriting—when students become the teachers, it is excellent for their development.  He also adds to their educational experience by helping them with anything STEM related.   Many of the comments also expressed concern that these children take up too much of the teacher’s time.  I get that—I want both of my children to get the time they deserve from their teachers and some days they are going to be the children that require the time, and other days it will be someone else’s child.

 

4)      The “children like this are just bad kids,” kind of comments.  No, no they are not.  If a child is acting out, it’s for a reason.  One person even went so far as to say that children like this were all psychopaths and that instead of teachers being trained in behavior mod, they should be trained in the early detection of such a disorder.  I mean… really?  When Man can no longer sit still or his hand is aching from writing due to his poor hand strength, he acts out.  He’s tired; he’s seven; he’s being asked to do something that he simply cannot do.  He is not bad; he is just a child who is challenged daily by his ADHD.

in defense of 2

 

The amount of parental blame in the comments was just startling.  Attitudes and ideas like that only serve to alienate the most fragile of students and their parents.  Instead of looking at the parents, we need to be looking at the public education system in its entirety.  We are failing all students, typical and atypical.  Increasing the number of teachers per school and per classroom, allowing for a smaller student to teacher ratio, would do wonders to allay concerns of all parents.  Creating programs that allowed for more flexibility in learning modality, instead of just focusing on the direct teaching method, would also benefit all students.  Pouring money into our educational budget instead of slashing it to its bare bones would benefit all students.  We need to stop looking for the simple excuses and start focusing on better, more effective long-term solutions.