- Often, when negotiating over state or federal legislation or even school district policy, aimed at promoting the use of restraint and other forms of aversive (read: abusive) tactics against children with disabilities, lawmakers, administrators and others want to propose to us the "worst case scenario." This typically happens in a hallway, or at a meeting table, sometimes with little fan fare, sometimes with a great flourish, they lay out for us what they have determined to be the most important factors to consider in their imaginary classroom. Even if they do not call it a "worst case scenario," you can sense its nature through its hopeless air, its lack of salient details and its characterization of a person with a disability as an object of fear and a ticking time bomb, ready to "go off" at any minute.
Now, the trap has been laid.
Then they ask us for our expertise as parents or our experience as advocates and educators, or simply our "position" in what they are attempting to define as the battle lines in proposals affecting children. We ~ dear parents ~ must recognize the trap for what it is. We must refuse to engage in dialogue around scenarios based on pernicious mythologies about the dangerousness of individuals with disabilities.
Here is a typical example:
Johnny is sitting in the back of a classroom and he jumps up and suddenly throws a chair across the room. He storms over to a window and knocks a vase off the window sill while attempting to look out the window. The teacher and the other students in the class are afraid. Behavioral support staff are called to the room to escort the student out, and even though Johnny's plan calls for him to leave with these folks, he refuses to do so. What now?
This is a perfect example of flawed perception in the mind of a storyteller. That, and only that, is what we need to focus on.
Behavior is communication. It is a conversation that never takes place in isolation. These "worst case scenarios" (and many a manifest determination meeting!) consistently start with a description of behavior, and then seek to justify harsh interventions or punishments. Without an ABC equation, there can be no correct answer. We have to look at the Antecedent (A), then the Behavior (B), and then what happened (consequence - C). If we are serious about figuring out the entire conversation taking place where problem behavior is occurring - with or without words - we have to continue to ask, and then what happened (behavior - b) and then what happened (consequence -c), and then what happened, and then what happened until we reach the end.
It's a conversation.
What most "worst case scenarios" describe is the centuries old myth that plagues people with disabilities: they are un-predictably dangerous. In the decade since Nevada passed legislation to end the use of aversive interventions in classrooms and in the hundred plus cases I have worked on since then, I have yet to discover one single case where the student "just went off." I've heard that justification in about ninety percent of the cases I have worked. But in all those cases, I have never found it to be true. Once the case is debriefed in the correct manner, the conversation unfolds. Maybe staff didn't see what happened, maybe they left out something they thought was not important, maybe they missed a whole week or even a month of ABC's, but kids don't just "go off."
Behavior is communication! And unless we can name and confront that initial bigotry articulated in "worst case scenarios," then it will be hard to require politicians and others to see our children as children. As long as they are allowed to cling to the myth of the worst case scenario, they will never take responsibility for changing school cultures in a way that not only benefits our children, but all children.
Let's break it to them gently... Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, especially when a part of the culture of the classroom/school work! That needs to be our position. Also, that behavior is communication. Take hold of these two truths and move the conversation back to these realities regardless of what scenarios are put on the table.
The question of the "worst case scenario" places us in an environment that is all about imagination. Let's look at the example above. "Behavioral support staff are called to the room to escort the student out." 26 years of advocacy experience in schools and mental health facilities has me immediately envisioning thugs in white jackets. Why not? The student has been envisioned as a thug, so why not match the image. If it were a real case I was working, I would immediately attempt to determine if there have been any successful experiences with these folks and the student prior to this. Two of them implies overkill. If I was reviewing records after the fact, and talking to folks, I'd be looking for any documentation of prior restraints and seclusion by these "behavioral staff." Is that their role in the school? Are they the take-down and seclusion "specialists?" Have they somehow been set up to have adversarial relationships with students. IF we were talking about a real student, I would be looking for a valid reason the student is refusing to go with these people. The imaginary scenario assumes that there is no valid reason for the refusal. They are adults, the student should go. PERIOD. But let us just for a moment remember the GAO reports of death and abuse of students with disabilities at the hands of educators. The primary assumption is flawed. Compliance is the central theme for intervention (the student should comply with requests to leave the classroom) and we are back to old ways of thinking: he's non-compliant, take him down and lock him up. The scenario ignores two pieces of the equation that will change all dynamics: the perspective of the student and the culture of the school/classroom.
You mean we actually have to communicate, listen and learn from children with disabilities who are hard to understand and interact with? Yes. That is the whole point. We should be changed by their perspective, and presence, and reality, just as we are with every other encounter we have with non-disabled people. And guess what? If we can get good at listening to children with disabilities, we will find ourselves listening to ALL children, and allowing their experiences to shape our conduct in, and design of, the school setting.
This is the real battleground isn't it? It's about moving from one person, in charge, defining behavior as "good" or "bad" and meting out punishment or praise, to a place where we actually listen to children, what they need, what works for them.... and we meet those needs.
Fantasy scenarios almost always place fear at the hearts and minds of the non-disabled individuals in the room. Very observant of the fantasy-master, because that is what pernicious mythologies always get us: FEAR.
When they want "concrete responses" to worst case scenarios, try this: talk about a REAL scenario. This is my favorite:
Dad and two sons come into my office. Youngest son, Johnny, has autism. age 11. Older son, we'll call him Brother, age 13. Dad, new to the role of parenting (in that odd situation where mom raises the kids to teenage-hood, and then some bizarre cultural wisdom tells us a man - who has never parented - can suddenly take on the MOST challenging aspect of child-rearing... but I digress) . So the family comes in and sits down. Dad manages to tell me his first concern which is the imminent placement of his son miles from home in a segregated school.
Dad then goes on a rampage verbally about the "loser mother" and her "lack of discipline" and on and on. Within a few minutes, Johnny begins to bang his head against the wall, throw things off the counters, and dad attempts to "discipline" the kid into submission. They end up crashing into a wall and then Johnny stations himself securely under a table in the corner of the room. The situation is incredibly tense, (co-workers later tell me they were ready to call the police). I am rambling on about positive behavioral supports while dad is attempting to get a physical handle on all of this. At one point he looks at me like I am crazy and issues a challenge, "What the hell could you to that is POSITIVE in this situation."
For those of you who believe in Spirit, this is where something otherworldly takes control of the situation and although I have no cognitive response, I have a value system that says all people are people, so I just step into the flow.... I ask dad to sit down and let the child remain under the desk. He is horrified, and I must listen to a few choice words about my level of sanity, then I say, "PLEASE, let him be." Dad acquiesces.
I turn to the older brother who has lived with this young man for all of his eleven years, and who is the one in our little meeting who knows Johnny. I have a pen and paper, and I ask the kid, "Tell me what your brother is good at?" Now I will admit, he looks at me like I am crazy, and with this kind of beseeching shake of the head implying, "Are you kidding? Did you not just see what happened here? This is what I live with!" I persist, "What is he good at?" Two more prompts.
"Really? tell me more about that?" and on we go, as I write things down, and take this young man's knowledge of his brother seriously, leaning into his dialogue. Brother is on a roll now, he comes up with more and more things his Johnny is good at, and Dad is swept into the flow and listening as well. When the list begins to slow ~ about three quarters of a page of things Johnny is good at ~ I sit up slightly and it is only then that I notice that we have been joined by the child under the table who is now sitting perfectly appropriately in his chair, and looking at his brother with what appears to be respect. I use a conversational tone and quietly point this out to Dad and Brother.
Stunned fascination is the immediate response, then dawning. I point out what I am just realizing: when the conversation was a negative one, involving the parent who was not present, this young man expressed his displeasure. Suddenly, Dad and brother both recognized Johnny as a real person who understands what is being said around hm.
As for me I am utterly impressed... In hindsight, I recognize that Brother was equally as uncomfortable with the topic of conversation surrounding his mother, but said nothing. Inside this non-verbal child is a fighter who is not going to allow the mother he loves to be trashed by a father he barely knows. There is also a young man who is proud of the things he is good at; things we can use to begin to help staff at the neighborhood school understand that Johnny belongs where he belongs, with them.
People are real whoever we are. We communicate. We want to be heard. And we want to be KNOWN. And maybe even appreciated once in a while.
A scenario that jumps into the middle of a made up dangerous - child, in a made up environment, with a compliance oriented theme serves no one. We need to take on the people who attempt to argue that fantasy is some kind of basis for allowing the abuse of children through the sanction of laws that promote restraint or seclusion.
PBIS requires that we be on the ground and present with REAL children, paying attention to their perspective and experiences, asking THEM what's going on, and applying the best of what we know about behavior as communication to real problems in the classrooms of America. We have no business attempting to create "concrete responses" to what is happening in the fantasy of "worst case scenarios" generated from the perspective of an adult who has the all the power and wants to keep it that way. We only serve to validate the fantasies in front of us if we try to match those fantasies with "concrete" fantasies of our own.
Instead, we need to challenge the whole argument which is premised on pernicious mythologies about children and young adults with disabilities who are unpredictably dangerous. Ignore scenarios about "internal anxieties" as contributing factors to "going off without warning." Internal anxieties come from our interaction with an external world. We need to stop pretending we are powerless to change what is happening right in front of us. If we want to educate and support children, then we have to be there, working hard at understanding what is happening to children. Let's remind the fantasy-masters that we can't do that while sitting on their backs, choking off their air supply, or while they are locked alone in closets.
Speak the truth to power.
Copyright 2010 by Deidre Hammon. Permission to forward, copy and post this article is granted so long as it is attributed to the authors and www.ourchildrenleftbehind.com