Understanding Daniel: Accommodations for a Struggling Middle Schooler
I want to tell you about a middle school student; we’ll call him Daniel (not his real name).
Daniel has neurobehavioral differences and has struggled since he was about 4 years old with intense and challenging behavioral symptoms. He’s now 13, and just this year entered middle school, in the 7th grade. I have worked with Daniel’s parents for a few years now, supporting them in learning how to parent him based on how his unique brain works and to develop the accommodations he needs in order to be successful. Daniel’s parents have been incredibly dedicated and invested in our work together, and as a result they’ve seen Daniel’s challenging behavioral symptoms decrease in intensity and frequency over time.
Daniel and his parents live in a fairly close-knit community, with a small school district. Daniel was known within his school district to be a challenging student, showing signs of struggles since kindergarten, but with his parents’ advocacy (they were well-known in this community, with significant influence and external resources to support him) he was able to get through elementary school without encountering serious disciplinary action.
At the beginning of middle school (7th grade), his reading and math were at a 4th- or 5th-grade level. He receives “pull out” special education services for math and reading one time per day, for about an hour total. Otherwise, he is in the mainstream classrooms with a typical middle school schedule where he rotates rooms and teachers throughout the day for various core academic classes and “specials” like P.E. and music.
Since the start of middle school this year, Daniel’s behavioral symptoms have escalated slowly with each passing month. Daniel’s parents have received reports from the middle school teacher and principal that their son ”goofs off” in class and is very disruptive, making it hard for the teacher to instruct. He invades the personal space of classmates, and while he can be redirected in the moment, he is usually back in their space within minutes, causing irritation and friction between him and his peers. His fellow 7th graders call him “annoying,” and don’t want him around, which makes Daniel feel isolated, as though he has no friends. Daniel also gets “amped up” during recess and P.E., becoming excessively rough in his play. He accidentally injured a classmate during a P.E. game as a result of his intense play. He is also highly competitive and ”loses it” when he does not win at games. As these behavioral concerns have continued over the last several months, Daniel has become more aggressive in his language and actions with peers and teachers. He is extremely impulsive (lagging executive functioning skill) and will often do and say things that later cause him to feel regret and shame.
Misunderstanding and Punishment
The school has taken several steps to try and help Daniel be successful in class; all of the steps are through a behavioral lens with a "behavior modification" approach. Initially, school staff would take away privileges (for example, making Daniel take his lunch in the principal's office instead of allowing him to sit with friends for lunch, or taking away his PE or recess time as a consequence for conflicts with peers). Teachers began to call Daniel’s parents at home several times per week. This eventually escalated to asking his parents to come and bring him home for the day, at least once per week. When this did little to improve Daniel’s behavior, the school continued to restrict the things that Daniel valued (time with friends and fun activities), threatening harsher consequences that would become more severe over time.
The school did dedicate resources to helping Daniel “behave” in school. They provided a 1:1 aide for half the day. The aide’s job was to sit with Daniel in his morning classes and correct and redirect his behavior when he drifted off-task and became disruptive. The corrections consisted of additional threats of consequences, promises of rewards, and an increasingly tense tone when Daniel did not comply.
When this redirection and correction from the aide did not work (which was increasingly the case), the teacher would remove Daniel from the classroom when he became disruptive, making him sit by himself in the hall. He was expected to “get a hold of himself” while out in the hall, and told that he could return to the classroom when he was ready to sit quietly and learn.
Over time, as Daniel spent more and more time in the hallway, feeling increasingly isolated and ashamed (not to mention bored), the school staff would find him wandering the halls or getting into even more trouble, doing things such as unraveling all the toilet paper in the bathroom stalls and then using it to plug all the sinks.
Daniel’s parents were confident that the reason for his escalating behavior was not a lack of interest or care for school, but the result of his brain difference and lagging cognitive skills not being fully acknowledged and accommodated.
When sending Daniel to sit in the hall by himself did not extinguish his challenging behaviors, the school isolated him further to a resource room. Daniel became increasingly angry that he was being singled out in this way, and after spending several hours alone in the resource room he destroyed it, dumping school supplies all over the floor, taking markers to the walls and kicking over desks and chairs.
This behavior resulted in him being suspended from school for a week.
While the elementary school had been receptive to hearing about Daniel’s lagging cognitive skills and his parents’ suggestions for meaningful accommodations to help him be more successful during the day, the middle school was more rigid in their school culture and approach. They valued conformity and compliance, and that was communicated through the behavioral modification plans they put in place. They believed that as a middle schooler, Daniel needed to learn how to behave, and that by exerting more control over him and isolating him from peers, he would then, all of the sudden, behave in the ways they expected.
His parents were clear on Daniel’s lagging cognitive skills, all a result of his neurobehavioral challenges. They described examples of Daniel being approximately half his chronological age when it comes to his ability to manage/maintain friendships. They saw him as having the skills of a first grader, attempting to navigate the social and emotional world of 7th graders (social and emotional cognitive skills).
They have known, since he was very young, that he has a narrow window of tolerance for frustration and is highly impulsive (emotional regulation, which is an executive functioning skill).
They describe ways in which Daniel can become easily over-stimulated and overwhelmed in loud, busy environments (sensory integration challenges).
Daniel’s parents have learned over the years that he is unable to “calm down” on his own, needing the support of a regulated adult to do so (emotional regulation and fragile nervous system).
Daniel experiences slow processing pace (think: “10-second child in a 1-second world”) and this is especially the case with processing verbal information (slow processing speed).
Another lagging skill for Daniel is an inability to connect the dots, or figuring out on his own what-led-to-what (executive functioning skills). This makes it difficult for him to learn from past experiences.
Daniel looks “neurotypical” and can “talk the talk” with peers and teachers, but cannot “walk the walk” (language and communication skills). This makes him even more vulnerable to being misunderstood.
Daniel also has "on" and "off" days, a classic symptom of neurobehavioral conditions (learning and memory skills).
Advocating for Accommodations
Daniel’s parents were confident that the reason for his escalating behavior was not a lack of interest or care for school, but the result of his brain difference and lagging cognitive skills not being fully acknowledged and accommodated. With these lagging skills in mind, his parents suggested several meaningful accommodations for the school to implement.
They asked that he be provided support to help facilitate conversations with peer groups to repair relationships, versus leaving it up to him to initiate amends on his own.
They worked with the teachers to learn how to anticipate when Daniel’s narrow window of tolerance and impulsivity may get in his way, and to make proactive plans for avoiding this escalation versus intervening after he is escalated. They provided concrete examples of what it looks like — behaviorally — when he begins to approach his window of tolerance threshold.
His parents brainstormed with the teachers about ways to reduce stimulation in Daniel’s school environment, proactively, before he becomes overwhelmed. One of their concrete requests was that Daniel be pulled out of class proactively (before trouble starts) for co-regulated support to help reduce sensory overload.
His parents worked with the school to identify a trusted adult who can help Daniel calm down when he begins to show signs of increased dysregulation. They asked that Daniel be provided with co-regulated support before any correction or threats of consequences take place. They asked that any aide that is with Daniel be provided information on what this means for a child with a fragile nervous system like his.
They asked that he be provided with many more visual reminders and cues related to schedule, expectations, and rules, because verbal information was difficult for Daniel to absorb, hold onto, and integrate into his behavior.
And lastly, they worked to help the school staff understand that Daniel will always have on and off days, and that during the “off” days, he needs increased support, not more punishment.
I wish I could tell you that the poor fit Daniel has experienced in middle school has been resolved completely, but as is the case for parents like you and I — and Daniel’s parents — the advocacy and work to create understanding does not happen overnight. The work continues between the school staff and Daniel’s parents, all of them striving for a mutual understanding of what Daniel needs to be successful in the classroom.
These starter accommodations I’ve described are just that — a start — with the parents and school working as collaboratively as possible over time to refine the accommodations as they continue to observe, reflect, and understand Daniel’s needs. The school is open to learning, although their overall culture remains markedly rigid, with power and control as a high priority, so there is still a great deal of room for growth.
If the story of Daniel and his parents resonates with you and your experience, know that there is reason for you to be confident that your child would be doing better if they could, and that supporting them from a brain-first lens can completely transform their school experience.
You’re never alone— we’re all in this together.
If you'd like to learn more, you might be interested in my FREE Brain First Parenting Podcast Mini-series. The podcast consists of six concise-but-packed episodes, providing an overview of the Brain First Parenting model and framework. Listen to it whenever you want, on the platform of your choice!
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.