Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Things about working with "emotionally disturbed" children that will break your heart.

This is a response to the awful, pooooor aduuuuuuults Cracked article about working with "troubled children". I worked in a classroom for kindergarten-4th graders with an educational classification of Behavior Disorder/Emotionally Disturbed. I loved them all, each and every one. Most of them had been through more by age 7 than anyone should be ever. This post is dedicated to them. I hope they are all safe & healing now.

Many adults who work in schools, particularly in special education settings, aren't there for the reason I was there. I was there because of a love of children, even (especially) difficult children. I was there because I remembered struggling and I wanted to be the adult who wasn't around when I was a student. I tried. But the system is set up to fail. Here are the things about teaching my "emotionally disturbed" students that ultimately broke my heart.

1. Their difficulties don't arise out of nowhere.

The majority of my students had spent some time in foster care--meaning they had been removed from their families of origin. Others had early onset mental illnesses. Some had both of these factors going on.

White children who are dealing with enough at home that they get removed from their parents in this part of the country? They are dealing with multiple kinds of abuse. So we had 8 year olds who were having flashbacks to being molested. I had a kindergartener who saw her mom get stabbed. A student whose stepdad took his medication for funsies, making the boy's medication levels completely unpredictable. Even the students who had never been removed were dealing with not optimal home environments. The parents just didn't have the coping skills, & things an adult gets away with? Gets you classified "emotionally disturbed" if you copy it at school.

What this meant in practicality was that we were often trying to undo what happened over the weekend, or we were trying to help a student who always felt in danger to learn and to practice emotional regulation skills they may have never seen modeled before. That's setting some students up to fail--if they've never seen emotional regulation, and they neurologically don't have a frustration tolerance, learning & "behaving" is tasking their resources to the brink.

2. Other adults are unempathetic assholes

The systems set up in these classrooms tend to run on "points" or "tokens" and they lose tokens for Behaviors. Some may call it "failing to earn" but to the students, it's losing. Keep in mind that these are fairly young people, and they often are at a distinct disadvantage in emotional regulation.

I have seen adults, multiple adults, gleefully tell students how many points they're losing. This tends to send them into a downward spiral because not getting all your points = not getting privileges (we're not talking a big cake. We're talking craft supplies here). I have seen teachers goad students who are doing the best they can to self calm into getting more upset.

If you have a young person with emotional regulation difficulties, and they are trying to talk themselves down when they had a bad start, just shush and let them talk themselves down! This is a big step for many students I know. Talking oneself down, even with a "tone", is much better than dumping a desk. (My strategy for "a desk is about to get dumped" is "jump onto the desk, Gollum pose", because being ridiculous can interrupt a downward spiral & it isn't threatening. I've never seen anyone else use this strategy).

I have seen teachers who were supposedly trained in deescalation get into the face and space of a student who has suffered severe abuse & is having a hard time. Then when the student runs or pushes them away, the adult uses this as an excuse to take them to the ground. Getting in someone's face is not deescalation. Moving away and shushing or saying soothing, validating things is deescalation.

Behavior Disorder classrooms are a place where seclusion & restraint are very popular. And never let anyone tell you for a minute that it's not punitive or retaliatory. It is punitive and retaliatory. If a kid shoves a boring book off their desk, that's disrespectful, sure. It is not something that is a risk to anyone. There is no excuse to restrain a kid for that.

My classroom had a room that was ostensibly a break room. It isn't a break room when you shut students in there, no matter how many beanbag chairs are in there. Saying something smartassed is not an excuse to lock someone in a room. It's like the adults in these settings have forgotten what it is to be small, young, and have a limited coping repertoire. And they punish the students in abusive ways for manifestations of their disability. That's not ok. That's not helping.

3. You will have to call CPS. They will blow off your call.

As I said in point 1, most of my students had been in foster care. Most of them had dealt with abuse or neglect. Some of them were still dealing with abuse and neglect.

As an educator, I was a mandated reporter. As the person who would jump on a desk, raise my eyebrows, & set off a giggle fit instead of encouraging rage, I was the Trusted Adult. They knew I was on their side.

Being Trusted Adult sucks sometimes, because a small child will tell you the very gory details of what started happening when he moved from his mom's house to his dad's. And you will think you can help, you have to report to CPS, and CPS isn't perfect but they can do something.

And then CPS will tell you that the kid is lying, don't you teach behavior disorder? Those kids lie. That is what they will tell you.

This is the hill I chose to die on. A student confided in me, things I'm pretty sure most young people wouldn't think of out of their imagination. I called CPS. CPS told me my student was lying. I said he wasn't. They said they'd believe me if the lead teacher in the room called. The lead teacher in the room elected not to call.

And I walked out. I couldn't help this young person through the accepted channels, but damned if I was going to sit there and pretend it was ok to call him a liar. I could do more good not in that classroom, & that's sad.

Many many students in these classrooms are in them because abused children act out as their only way of asking for help--and then their being in these classrooms is used as an excuse to not help them. It isn't ok. It will break your heart into a million tiny pieces.

4. Your students will be blamed for anything that goes wrong within a half mile radius.

A goal of our class was to prepare our students to go back into the mainstream classrooms. They were mostly academically on grade level in at least a couple areas. They could mostly comprehend the work, it was dealing with the behavioral demands of the classroom or the amount of busywork that made things a problem for them in the regular ed classrooms.

Part of the least restrictive environment, then, was that they would go to music and PE with the other students at their grade level (with or without a teacher, depending on how they were doing that day) and had recess and lunch at the same time as their age peers. In theory this is a start, right?

In practice, the other students learned very quickly that if you do something obnoxious on the playground, you won't get in trouble if you blame one of my students. Even if it was obviously not something they would do (the other adults didn't really care what my students would or wouldn't do, they were Those Kids). I had students be blamed for throwing sand when they were in a swing on the complete opposite side of the school yard.

And heaven help the student if they're going to academic classes with their typical peers and someone can't find her book or pencil. Obviously it was my student. Those Kids Steal/Hit/Draw On The Walls. they really didn't. My students did act out sometimes but they didn't do a quarter of the things they were blamed for.

And the PE teacher, music teacher, regular ed teachers? They were nearly as bad as my coworkers in terms of nitpicking at their behavior. A frustrated sigh is age appropriate. Crumpling up a bad drawing is pretty normal. That is not call to demand that I take them back to the self contained classroom. I see typical kids on the other side of the room throwing their crappy drawings at each other, what on earth is this double standard?

5. You will fall in love with your students, & you may not be able to save them, & failing will never. stop. hurting.   

The thing in point 3? Actually happened. For reals. The student in question was about to go back to his home school district, his regular ed classroom with resource room time if he needed a break, when everything went to hell. He went from reading to me and discussing the stories to all sorts of not ideal stuff that I won't discuss because our worst days deserve to be at least a bit obscured. It was a fast downward spiral.

And another student? Really only needed sensory accomodations probably and only ended up in my class because he was defending his right to them. But because he had been placed in our classroom had to work his way back into typical classes and was always considered a Bad Kid because one of his teachers had refused to work with his needs. If you don't get out of the emotionally disturbed self contained classroom by high school you're stuck forever.

Another? Ended up going to the special day school for kids with severe emotional challenges. Another got pulled out of school entirely because his parents didn't want other adults able to observe him. That's frightening.

I couldn't save them from their families, couldn't heal their coping mechanisms. But I loved them to bits, and I know it was mutual. A big hug and "I love you" made it pretty clear. "I wish you were my mom".

"I made you this necklace to play with so you don't break your pretty one".

cylindrical wood beads on fishing line
I have had this necklace for over 10 years. One of my students from that classroom made it for me. Of all the things he could have chosen to do with the craft supplies, he chose to help me not break things, because breaking things loses points whether you meant to or not. That's a lot of thinking outside himself, huh?

But I couldn't save them. Too many adults who work with young people think only about themselves, act as though their students are having difficulties just to piss them off. And it isn't the case at all.

Maybe you won't fall in love with them, which is something I'm sad about. Love is a thing my students needed, instead of being made into monsters and adversaries. They had enough adversaries.

I loved them, they loved me, & it breaks my heart that so few other people saw what I saw.


Unknown said...

Yeah. It's hell doing the right thing.

I'm sorry I wasn't able to fix the damn thing, K. Hug on offer if it's the sort of thing that would help.

Unknown said...

This is what I feel every time someone writes Issy Stapleton off. Or Andre McCollins. I channel it into writing about the law and speaking truth to power.

As always, you put things beautifully. And I hope -someone- listens, even if your intended audience may not.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful! Thank you!

Unknown said...

This is the perfect counter to that article.
I hope you should consider submitting this to Robert Evans at Cracked and cc Dan O'Brien and David Wong.

Unknown said...

Please ignore that "should"

Ilja Aalto said...

Reading this just broke my heart.
The failure to love destroys so many beautiful souls.
I hope this can at least open some eyes. You're a wonderful person for doing what you do.

Mari said...

brb, sobbing now.

Gretchen said...

I agree with Michelle - please do see about getting this to Cracked. I clicked on that article of theirs yesterday - only took seeing a few pics and phrases to know I did NOT want to read it [close tab fast like it's burning me]. Thank you for writing this.

Margaret Owen Thorpe said...

Your article scared me right back into elementary school - which was over 60 years ago. I felt and saw again everything that happened and that so frustrated me when I was all of six years old. And that was a long time before "the system" thought it knew what it was doing. I am so glad to not be a child today. The child I was would, today, be either full of Ritalin or locked up or both.

Unknown said...

My kids have been bullied more by a few teachers than all the kids put together. Especially the $50/hr and the $10/hr teachers.

Unknown said...

I didn't read the cracked article, but this hit home for me in so many ways because I was one of "those kids". I remember abusive teachers in grade school. In high school we had our own special needs wing with our own assistant principal. Even our teaches would comment on how poorly the teachers and administration would treat us. I remember getting in trouble because someone started a fight by punching me! Of course it was handled by the mainstream admin. I also had a 3rd grade teacher who would humiliate me at every turn. She once wrote down all my fidgety habits on the chalkboard and tried to get the other kids to imitate me. Combine this with undiagnosed Aspergers and problems at home... you get the picture!

Anonymous said...

"You can't save them all" is always the hardest lesson to learn. I'm sure it's doubly hard when you're the only person who seems to want to save them. That you are the only one who thinks they matter.

Maybe it didn't feel like enough, but even if it was only for a bit, you made those kids feel loved and safe. That makes you their miracle.

Anonymous said...

"4. Your students will be blamed for anything that goes wrong within a half mile radius."

Yep. That was my experience in a "normal", perfectly mainstream school environment. It got so much this way that in one year, MAD Magazine published a series of one-panel jokes about football (Rugby League, that is). One panel showed a player punching a player so hard they land a dozen feet away. Umpire turns to an involved player standing yards from the incident and says "you did that! get off!". I angrily showed this panel to all and sundry, screaming that it was what my school experience was like.

Although it hurts to know that my experience was not unique, it is also incredibly validating to know from others that I am not just making up the reason I want to take some teachers, or on occasion just _any_ teacher, and as Stephen King put it in Christine, just walk it right into them.

Miss Lynx said...

I was in tears by the end of this - in part because it flashed me back to a summer job I had as a teenager, working at a subsidized day camp for kids from low-income families, many of whom were considered to be "at risk".

I remember an 8-year-old girl who was constantly acting out, and regarded by most of the other counsellors and staff as a holy terror, but who when I tried to connect with her on her own level, being silly when she was being silly, and asking her what was making her angry when she was angry, instead of just telling her she had to calm down and be quiet, she really bonded to me, and would follow me around like a duckling, repeatedly telling me that she wished I was her mom. I don't think she'd ever had anyone just listen and try to understand instead of scolding her or yelling at her or worse... She cried on the last day of camp and said "I'm never going to see you again, am I?" and I didn't know what to tell her.

And I remember another little girl, who was only 4 or 5, and who seemed like a perfect little angel, always sweet and tractable, who you would not have thought had any problems at all - until one day she had an accident and wet her pants, while I was giving her a ride on my shoulders on a field trip, so I got peed on a little bit. Which was no big deal to me, but what still chills me was the look of terror on her face when I realized what had happened and lifted her down from my shoulders. I wasn't even angry, but she was physically cowering and looked like she was certain she was about to get hit or worse - and I realized that that must be what she would have faced, at home. I tried to reassure that it was OK, that no one was mad at her, that it was just an accident, and even then she seemed to have a hard time believing me. And she kept repeating to herself "I'm bad," and "I'm stupid." Which no kid says to themselves unless it's what they're used to hearing said to them by others... And I realized that sometimes even the kids who seem "good" may be dealing with horrible things at home. Sometimes acting perfect and trying to endear yourself to everyone is a defence mechanism, because maybe at home acting that way is the only way not to get hurt.

I told one of the staff that I thought this girl was being abused at home. She listened to everything I told her, and then said, with a pained and helpless look, "I think you're right - but that's not really firm evidence. If we report it, they won't do anything. A lot of these kids are dealing with really bad things at home, but unless we have firm proof, CAS won't step in. And we usually don't have any. Sometimes all we can do is try and be there for the kids, and hope it makes a difference."

So that was what I tried to do. But I still feel like it wasn't enough. That nothing could have been enough.

Unknown said...

God this is so damned beautiful and so damned true.

Signed a school psychologist who tries really hard to get it every day.

KittySabba said...

Thanks for remembering us. The type of person you are are the people we remember. We get out, we escape, whether from families, school, people, but we remember the people who treated us with love, and those are the people who give us courage to try reaching out for love again. A image of love that gives us a place to start. Thank you for remembering us, we remember you.

Unknown said...

My heart goes out to you. I hope you do end up making the difference you obviously burn to make. Good luck, to you and all of the children and adults struggling with these issues

Anonymous said...

Too true. It's painful enough to watch the kids I work with being misunderstood by family members and therapists-- and they have it so much better than the kids you're talking about (my clients are neurodivergent but generally not considered "difficult").

It really is heartbreaking. But know that every little difference you ever made in one of those kids lives-- just the experience of being listened to rather than scolded for once-- is worth it.

The White Pariah said...

I've had a sadly very similar experience from both sides - as a child with early onset mental illness that wasn't recognised until my brain had already been screwed up, leaving me unable to process emotion and therefore acting out throughout my teens and still now in my adult life. I went on to teach music to many students who had horrific experiences, and often those students came to me to ask for help. After that I worked in substance misuse clinics with people who'd been injected with heroin by their own parents as children, but who were constantly blamed by everyone for 'choosing to take drugs'. Bizarrely my mother was the best teacher and was able to forge relationships with even the most affected children, yet she somehow used up her empathy in school and there was nothing left for me. As an adult I now want to help organisations become places where Neurodiversity is promoted and built in to every process and structure, but there are still so few of us shouting about it, it seems like an impossible task. People seem annoyed when I'm upset with the langue they use and I hear 'it's just words' a lot. But words matter. They plant the seeds of what we accept and how we judge each other.

Usethebrains Godgiveyou said...

As a parent of one of those labelled children, you make me cry. He had one teacher who understood him, and was so kind...we called it "the year we could breathe". She filled him up. She taught me how to fill him up. I cry now to think of her. She changed my life. This is important, Kassiane.

Nobody ever took into account he was doing the best he could, except Miss Hunt. He had severe learning differences that were treated as willfullness. Such heavy weight on such little shoulders.

Tina said...

Thank you for speaking out for "those kids"