Precocious Play and Undue Discipline

A 2e child’s brain gets him into trouble. Seeking sensory input, feeling anxious about a situation or environment, or responding to an unseen need, a 2e child’s behaves in a way that is often misinterpreted as naughty, purposeful, dangerous, or manipulative adults. Sometimes teachers react without understanding the reasoning behind the child’s actions. The 2e child, confused by their teacher’s reaction, feels self-doubt and shame. Rather than perpetuating this cycle by acting defensively or emotionally, the best approach is for parents to help their child’s teacher understand why their child behaved or reacted the way that they did and to help their child process why the teacher reacted the way they did. Only when perspectives are clearly understand can meaningful and lasting change occur.

Below are incidents when teachers misinterpreted 2e kids’ behaviors. Following the short descriptions are suggested ways for parents to respond:

The Singer
A client’s child, anxious and bored used to sing during class to manage her anxiety. The teacher thought this behavior was purposeful, that the child knew the singing bothered her and that the child did so to be oppositional. The child had to sign a form indicating her wrongdoing and was kept from attending a school field trip. This child was five years old.

The Foot Tapper
Another client’s seven-year-old child tapped his foot up and down; an unconscious mannerism that helped his brain focus. The teacher told the parents that this child did so to bother her, was manipulating her and that he simply refused to comply with her directions. Every time he tapped his foot, the teacher would yell at him.

The Sprinkler
Yet another client’s child found a sink spraying the floor and mirror in the school bathroom. This first-grader invited a friend to play with her as she delighted in what she thought of as “a cool little sprinkler.” This child and her parents were asked to sign an incident report indicating that she was disrespectful, and the incident was recorded as a “Major Incident,” that will remain in her permanent file. The child was told to apologize to the custodians.

The Talker
The last example is of a nine-year-old boy who was kept from school events and celebrations due to the demerits he racked up for “excessive talking.”

Each of these incidents occurred to children when they were very young and in elementary school. For these children, misunderstanding, discipline, and shame began at an early age. All precocious, bright, and creative children, their behaviors stemmed from unique neurology, not from nefarious intent. Each experience could have provided an excellent opportunity for the adults in charge to demonstrate understanding, forge a relationship with the child and consider these events as teaching moments. Instead, their reactions initiated a downward spiral of confusion and negative self-identity. There are ways to advocate on the child’s behalf to change the trajectory of their thinking. With so many 2e children it’s important to choose battles. It’s imperative to help them understand if their behaviors are dangerous. It’s most important to give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially at the ages of the children described above, they could not have malicious intent. Trying to scare or punish them to dissuade similar behavior in the future just backfires, because the initial trigger or cause is not addressed. Just as these children’s behaviors present opportunities for educators to teach lagging skills, so do the teachers’ behaviors present opportunities for parents to broaden the teachers’ understanding.

Parents in these situations often feel frustrated that the teacher doesn’t handle their child differently. Indeed, parents should push back and challenge inappropriate discipline but rather than bad-mouthing the adult, parents should focus on helping their child work through and process the teacher’s inappropriate reaction. It is confusing for a young child to hear their parent speak negatively about their teacher. While the teachers in the scenarios above were behaving inappropriately, the best way to handle these events is to help the child process them and to help the teacher understand the ‘why’ behind the child’s behavior.

To help your child process, ask him questions like, “why do you think the teacher was upset?” “What do you think the teacher saw or heard or experienced?” “What do you wish happened differently?” “Is there anything you’d like to do now?” “Is there anything you wish?” These questions give the child a chance to think about the adult’s perspective. If there is misunderstanding, parents can role play with the child and help them express themselves or clarify their intent. If incidents like these occur in the beginning of the year, it’s important for parents to set the tone with teachers. While each example above is egregious, the only hope for change is to help the teacher understand the child’s perspective. Remember that the ideal situation is to collaborate with your child’s teacher and to be on the same team.

Regarding the incidents above here are suggested ways to respond that include an explanation, and a suggested follow-up action for the teacher:

The Singer
Our child sings when she is anxious. Contrary to what you may see, it is important for her to please the adult in the room. We understand that you view her singing as purposely doing something that bothers you, but in fact, she cannot figure out how to please you and her singing is like a nervous tick. She is interested in horses and dragons and loves to draw. She is a precocious math student. If you take the time to talk to her about these interests, and she feels connected to you, she may settle down and not feel the need to sing.

The Foot Tapper
Our son’s neurology results in excess energy. Called psychomotor overexcitablity, when this characteristic is ignored or he is asked to ‘turn it off,’ he cannot concentrate. In fact, he needs to move to learn. If his foot tapping bothers you, perhaps he can take his shoe off or he can stand, pace, or sit on an exercise ball.

The Sprinkler
Our daughter oozes creativity out of every pore of her body. It is clear to us that the bathroom setting faded away and she simply saw a great opportunity to have fun. It makes sense that she would eventually apologize to the custodian for the extra clean up required, but we are afraid that assumptions underlying the school response will do more harm than good. Our daughter will likely need support this year to direct her creativity, but she’ll benefit from teachers embracing her passions rather than disciplining them.

The Talker
We know our son is loquacious to say the least. There are so many thoughts in his mind and he’s curious about everything. We know it seems like he is disrespectful when a teacher asks him to stop talking and he doesn’t. We know he can aggravate peers when he talks about something for a long time. We witness the same behavior at home. It was helpful for us to understand that when he doesn’t stop talking, it has nothing to do with respect and everything to do with the vast number of thoughts that occur in his head all the time. It’s important for to acknowledge that he has a lot to say. Sometimes when we ask him to help us solve the issue, he comes up with great ideas. Sometimes just asking the question helps to settle him down. Sometimes keeping a notebook to record thoughts and having a set time set aside to talk with him helps and gives him a sense of worth. Other times we identify a time when he can free think with one of us. We feel it’s super important for him to get these thoughts out and to not feel like he must quelch his curiosity. We are working on teaching him how others feel, but we worry if he is punished for talking, he’ll feel like he’s being punished for being himself.

Particularly in the beginning of the year before teachers truly know your child, it is important to help them understand what your child’s behavior means. Behavior is communication and invisible triggers are often misunderstood by teachers. As the expert on your child, help others in his life to recognize and plan for your 2e child’s unique need

Julie Skolnick
Author: Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

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Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

2 Responses

  1. I would like to ask that the same consideration for the adults and teachers that is being promoted for 2e students be shown in the way that language is used in these posts. When words such as inappropriate and egregious are used, it sets a tone, for me, that is not positive. The teachers and adults working with these young people are just as much misunderstood as the children are. It seems the language used to advocate for the 2e community is far more neutral or encouraging than for others in this particulate post. There are as many neurodivergent adults who are teachers who have as much a lack of understanding of how to engage and understand 2e students as do neurotypical teachers. These inappropriate incidents do happen with teachers, adults and parents and in real life. I just feel that it is not helpful when it is written in this way. Perhaps saying it is misfortunate that this took place. I have read many posts by those in the community who are advocating for neurodivergent children. I have to say that much of the language being used about teachers indicates that parents have to fight for the children (and yes the word fight was used). This sets up our relationships as adversary from the beginning and does not foster what it is that both sides want – understanding (as you repeatedly mention) and for everyone to feel safe, engaged and learning. There are always incidents as a parent or teacher where on reflection we know we could have been better. Certain actions can harm any child, not just bright and quirky children. All adults and school institutions can learn more about how to engage and interact with children in a way which will promote relationship and understanding of how we can all get carried away by our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. What I see is that these adults and schools are also getting carried away by their emotions and thoughts about the actions of children. Parents, children, teachers and all those who work and support them are all learning how to manage a classroom of diverse young people and still be able to foster learning and meet everyone’s’ needs, not just the neurodivergent child’s needs. As you indicate, the misunderstanding is mutual and adults are acting from what they feel and know as much as children are. We are all teachable and capable of learning new ways of understanding others. And it would be incredibly amazing if the language used to describe this is just as encouraging, understanding and neutral in tone for everyone.

    1. Thanks for your feedback, it’s much appreciated. As someone who works with teachers on understanding the 2e child and facilitates training sessions to learn best practice strategies in the classroom for teachers educating 2e kids, I certainly did not want to alienate or offend. In fact, the true examples in the blog were misfortunate and the adult reaction was egregious. The blog was trying to balance emotional reaction to unfortunate behavior (by both the child and the teacher) and to help remind parents that most teachers are not trained in teaching 2e kids. But the fact remains, a child is a child and an adult is an adult and a parent is left trusting adults to care for their children. A children shamed and punished in the way that the “water fountain” child was punished can lead to lasting self doubt and compromised self confidence. Parents deserve validation for their emotions in order for them to be able to address difficult situations calmly. Someone has to hear the parents just as someone has to hear the teachers. Certainly right now with very little teacher support, high attrition and enormous burn out parents and teachers have to view themselves as being on the same team to support each other in the interest of the child.

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