"But I read the purple books!" - Why reaching for our power only leads to more challenging behaviors
The other day I was reflecting on how, when those of us with perceived power — parents, teachers, caregivers, any adult who “holds power” in an environment — reach for that power with the intention of using it to control a child’s challenging behavior, the challenging behavior almost always grows more intense. It sparked a memory of a specific incident with a teaching assistant (TA) in my daughter’s middle school classroom last year. I’ve decided to share that experience with you as an example of the behavioral lens approach (use of consequences, timeouts, isolation, bribes, and other punishments) versus the Brain First approach (use of accommodations, understanding of the brain-behavior connection, use of co-regulation and emphasis on relationship and connection), and the subsequent outcomes one might expect to see when pursuing one path or the other.
And so…story time!
My daughter, who is 14 and struggles with a serious brain-based condition (FASD) that includes challenging behavioral symptoms, lost her highly-prized iPad time in her middle school classroom one day near the end of the spring semester.
This is how it all happened.
In my daughter’s classroom, books associated with the different reading levels are color-coded. The books for her current reading level are purple. At the scheduled reading time on this particular day, the TA working with my daughter decided to select a book that is one level up. These books are blue.
When the TA returned with a blue book, my daughter refused to read it, saying the books she reads are purple. The TA, with very good intentions, attempted to reason with her, telling her that she was ready to move up a level and be challenged a bit more in her reading skills, and so today they would be reading the blue books.
"But I read the purple books!" she said.
My daughter continued her refusal to read the blue books and a power struggle ensued. No reading ended up taking place, and there was no resolution to the situation, either. The TA was frustrated and my daughter was upset. At this point, reading time was over and they moved on with the next task on the schedule for the day, without any resolution or closure for what had just occurred.
Except my daughter didn’t “move on.”
She grew increasingly frustrated about what she perceived had happened (she was suddenly and unfairly told to read a different book than she was used to) and her afternoon behavior reflected this. As her behavior escalated, the TA became more rigid in his approach, attempting to force a behavior change, first with threats of consequences and then, when that didn’t work, enforcing the consequence. The consequence was that my daughter lost her iPad time for that day, and she was devastated. She made it through her the remainder of her school day (meaning no calls to home and no need to leave early) despite this devastation, which shows a growing maturity on her part, but her Dad and I certainly experienced the accumulated fatigue and burnout from her day as she struggled to make it through her evening routine without melting down.
This is a perfect example of how differently a situation might unfold, depending on what lens you’re viewing them through. The TA was clearly seeing my daughter’s refusal to read and her “non-compliance” as intentional and willful. She received an imposed consequence as a result. Their connection, mutual trust and relationship was also negatively impacted.
Here is what was actually happening with my daughter, as viewed from a Brain First lens.
One of my daughter’s lagging cognitive skills, which is a result of her brain-based condition, is her inability to be flexible, especially at a moment’s notice. As a result of her more rigid thinking, she is a concrete thinker, and in her world, everything is either black or white. When some event or activity has occurred one way repeatedly, she expects this to be the case in the future, and has trouble shifting gears if not given time to adjust and ease into the change. Because she has always read the purple books, and was not given any sort of heads up that this might change in the future, she could not adjust in that moment.
It was not about “stubbornness” or “unwillingness” to shift— her brain simply does not work in a way that allows her to “go with the flow.” Instead of recognizing what was at play, and becoming more flexible in this situation, the TA matched her rigidity with his own even greater rigidity, unwilling to alter his course. He continued his attempts to reason with her when she did not, at that moment, have the skills to “be reasonable.”
In addition to her rigid thinking, my daughter’s window of tolerance for frustration is very narrow, especially when it comes to tasks that are incredibly challenging for her. This, again, is a result of her brain-based condition. The act of reading is at the top of this list of difficult tasks. It is true that children grow in their skills when their window of tolerance is challenged to expand over time, but each child is going to have a different level of sensitivity to this. If they are pushed too much, too fast, they will be outside their window and will experience challenging behavioral symptoms. At that point, their “thinking brain” is off-line, and they have lost access to the cognitive skills that are required to listen, learn, emotionally regulate and reason.
My daughter’s TA did not have sufficient awareness to realize that even though my daughter may be intellectually ready for the higher reading level, there needed to be some planning and thoughtfulness in how he transitioned her. When it was clear that she was thrown outside of her window of tolerance at the mere mention of advancing reading levels — which was as much about the unfamiliar color of the books! — viewing this interaction through a Brain First lens would have meant recognizing that the next step was not to try to reason, convince, or engage in a power struggle, but to back off and try again another day, in another way.
The third way that my daughter, like many kids with neurobehavioral differences, struggled in this situation was with her ability, or inability, to “move on” or “get over” things. Kids with brains that work differently — at all ages — can become easily stuck in their own emotions and perceptions. They may obsess over what has happened, growing increasingly dysregulated, and as a result, more challenging behaviorally. Their lagging skills often prevent them from being able to articulate their feelings or to connect the dots from their current actions to their underlying feelings. Making amends and repairing ruptures in relationships is an essential piece of being able to “move on,” but young people like my daughter lack the skills to move through this process without significant support.
None of this was recognized by my daughter’s TA, and so, instead of helping my daughter become regulated again, and then circling back with her to process what occurred, she was given a consequence. This consequence only caused her to become more dysregulated. It did nothing to help grow her skills of being more flexible, expanding her frustration tolerance, or helping her transition.
There are almost always these two paths available to us (the adults who hold the power in any environment): the behavioral lens and the Brain First lens. We can either view behavior as intentional, being done to us, and on purpose, or we can view it as a symptom of a child experiencing a clash between their cognitive skills and the expectations being set before them. It’s the difference between seeing a child who is “misbehaving” as a child that is selfish and does not care, versus seeing a child in distress who needs even greater understanding and support. The first perspective escalates behaviors and results in a pattern of chronic frustration for both child and parent.
And the other?
That one — the Brain First lens — results in greater understanding, less frustration and the dissipation of challenging behavioral symptoms over time.
Interested in learning more about how your child’s unique brain works differently and what this means in terms of helping them experience fewer challenging behaviors? You can visit eileendevine.com to learn about the Brain First Parenting program and The Resilience Room membership community.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.