With Understanding Comes Calm Header

©Daniel Butcher 2007


I’m sitting in the juror room at our local courthouse thinking about how inconvenient it is to have jury duty this week. I’m trying to figure out any number of ways to get out of it. Then I start to think about the principle that is the foundation of our criminal justice system, a presumption of innocence or more commonly known as “innocent until proven guilty.”

It’s really quite remarkable that no matter what you do or how you do it, in this country you get a chance to explain what was going on and why you are in a predicament. We take the time to hear both sides, to impanel a group of people who are supposed to understand your position in life, and there’s an impartial arbiter.

It is at this point that my thoughts turn to 2e kids and how they are anything but “innocent until proven guilty.

Parents, educators and professionals often think they know exactly why a child is behaving in a particular way. In fact, quite the opposite from having advocates and encouraging conversations about facts and circumstances, we forego listening to what a challenging child has to say because “we’ve heard it so many times before” or we are at our wits end or we are tired or have our own agenda to get through. We often judge and issue a verdict and even a consequence (or punishment) before ever allowing the child to express what is truly going on for him.

In some cases, the child cannot express what is going on for him. He may not know, or he may know but not have the words to clearly communicate, why he feels so off-kilter that he needed to shout, needed to move, needed to push, cover his ears, run, incessantly talk, not say anything, weep or just couldn’t stop a behavior. This inability to coherently express what lies behind behavior and chronologies of events is precisely why we have attorneys in our justice system – to help people tell their story with all the complicated details and feelings that make up the trajectory leading to the moment in question.

While we can’t have, nor do we want an attorney for every infraction or bad choice a child or student makes, we can expect the adult in charge to serve as an advocate, or at the very least a very good listener. I firmly believe that an educator’s job is to advocate for her student, parents’ jobs are to advocate for their child and professionals’ jobs are to advocate for their client.  The only way to accomplish this is for adults to take the time to know the child in order to understand where the seemingly out of sync, and outlying behavior comes from.  To understand a child’s strengths and sensitivities provides the adult with crystal-ball like intuition about situations that may inflame the child. A deep understanding of a child’s experience allows adults to titrate their response in order to diffuse rather than escalate the situation.

This doesn’t mean looking the other way because we know it’s hard for 2e kids to manage all that is going on for them.  It definitely doesn’t mean lowering expectations. Empathy is imperative but it has to partner with understanding and acknowledgement. It means finding out the what’s, who’s, where’s, when’s, and why’s of what is going on for a particular child. Then have a discussion with the child acknowledging and empathizing, but also discussing his responsibility to his classroom or family, to you, and to himself.  Focusing on the child’s needs, takes the pressure off of him to always fend for himself and allows him to consider others’ perspectives.

2e kids don’t get a whole lot of patience and understanding. But that’s what they sorely need. They need the adult in charge to understand them so they feel safe sharing their complicated feelings and can honestly explain the events, from his point of view, that precipitated the behavior.  This advocate (parent, teacher, coach, tutor), knowing the child’s back story, can anticipate challenges for the child and help him avoid his typical path. While adults may recognize familiar patterns and repeated actions that annoy, frustrate, and anger them, that doesn’t mean they understand what’s behind those actions. Punishing the repeated behaviors will never make them stop and serves only to alienate the child, putting him in the position where he has to fend for himself in whatever way he sees fit.

Ross Greene (livesinthebalance.org) talks about lagging skills and unsolved problems. Lagging skills plus unsolved problems, Greene says, results in challenging behavior. He says that all kids would do well if they could – no one wants to be that kid. Whenever I hear about consequences or discipline in a school or home setting, the first thing I ask is “what skill did that response teach?” Often times the answer is none. Recognizing patterns in behavior is identifying the unsolved problem. The next step is to figure out the solution which most certainly is not to punish or pathologize the child.

Recently a friend shared with me a vignette from her son’s classroom. The assignment was for the students to describe themselves with multiple single-word adjectives. He chose inflammatory descriptors – some violent. In response, the teacher suggested that the parents have him assessed and enter therapy. When Mom asked her son what happened, he simply responded “I was bored and wanted her to pay attention to me.” His teacher probably pegged this student as impulsive or possibly “attention seeking.” Lacking an understanding of the child’s thirst for knowledge, when his expression went dark, she became worried. If she took the time to get to know the student she may have realized those dark feelings were because he yearns to learn and his frustration by this type of assignment makes him think of those dark adjectives.

If the teacher knew the child she may have been able to lean into his responses and played with him by saying things like “Gee, should we change your name to Dracula?” Maybe she could sit with him and identify the things he loves to do and then ask about adjectives that describe him when he is doing those things. Or maybe she could give choices in her assignments so students felt they had some say in the work they need to accomplish.

Emotions for 2e kids are almost always complicated. What they are feeling on the inside is not often expressed on the. The child may not even understand the strength of his emotions and why these emotions can lead to inappropriate behavior. If we add impulsivity and challenges reading social cues, then we are likely interacting with a child who doesn’t easily identify his emotions or practice positive self-talk, breathing exercises or other strategies to help regulate those emotions. Dolling out consequence only serves to undermine self-esteem and knock another adult off the list of potential advocates.

If we can parse what leads to the chronology of events culminating in unwelcome behavior, then we can identify lagging skills, set up scaffolding to make lasting change and growth for our 2e kids. Usually there isn’t an objective arbiter, let alone a jury of peers for a 2e kids. They are outliers and they know it. If the adult in the room can objectively listen to the 2e child so he feels understood, and then express empathy and expectations, the 2e child will feel relief and become open to modifying his behavior. This requires asking questions, actively listening and helping the child integrate into the classroom in a meaningful way. At the very least we must approach 2e kids knowing they are innocent until proven guilty.

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