Tuesday, March 06, 2001

Mama's night out

I went to hear a speaker last Tuesday night (yes, that's right: I actually left my house on a school night and went somewhere alone!) on the topic of "Stopping Inappropriate Behaviors, Supporting Appropriate Behaviors," sponsored by our school district's special-ed department. I think, in the six years my kids have been in special-ed, this is the second such evening they've sponsored. I wish they'd do more; the turnout was pretty good, and goodness knows the parents of special-needs kids need noble excuses to get the heck out of the house.

The speaker was the educational director at a local school for autistic, emotionally disturbed and multiply disabled kids, and clearly he knows how to handle them. His ideas were good, although nothing I hadn't heard or used before. The problem, as always, is not in the ideas, but in the consistent execution thereof. I do pretty well. But any special kid worth his or her salt will present with behaviors that do not respond well to theory.

This particular night, the theory was that to change a behavior, you can change the antecedent -- something that precedes the behavior, whether it's the who, what, when, where, why, or how of the activity -- or change the consequences -- which should almost always be positive consequences. The idea was that a parent or educator would have an enormous bag of positive consequences, from stickers to snacks to Gameboy time, and keep trying until the proper motivator was found. And that's a good idea, in general. As is the idea that if a behavior is causing problems, you change something that you're doing, and keep changing until the behavior is shaped to your liking.

These are all things I've been doing for years, mostly under the guidance of books like "Raising Your Spirited Child" and, more recently, "The Explosive Child." And mostly, it's worked with my son, my little fetal alcohol-affected bundle of impulses. But sometimes -- whoo, boy. Sometimes mom runs low on creativity, and sometimes that bag of tricks gets empty. Who knew that to be an effective special-needs parent, you had to be a magician, too?

The problems come up when my son, normally a guy of good will, finds himself in a place where protecting his fragile nervous system is more important than any consequence, or when he feels he is so unable to do a task to our liking that it is easier to step forward and accept negative consequences than to try to do the impossible. And as luck would have it, these tend to be situations in which changing antecedents is difficult or distasteful. And so, we fail to stop inappropriate behaviors, support appropriate behaviors. And yell a lot.

Most of the folks at the meeting that night didn't have problems like that. Most of them had clear defiance issues, and many had kids who weren't classified. What were they even doing there? I guess you mention the word "behavior," and parents come out of the woodwork. If I ever write a book, no matter what it's about, I'm going to put the word "behavior" in the title, and it will be a best-seller for sure. These people weren't worried about kids whose fine motor skills were so limited, they ate like slobs; or kids whose impulses were so strong, they couldn't be quiet at church; or kids who completely lose control of themselves at times of high stress, or release from high stress. The inappropriate behaviors they were concerned with were things like, "She leaves her papers all over the place and then can't find them"; or "Her teacher says she's too shy in class"; or "He takes two hours to do his homework, even though he's very bright." (If I had two cents for every time a person with a troubled kid took time to point out how bright he was, I would be a rich woman today.)

It was a frustrating evening, listening to this person with special-ed knowledge solve the paltry problems of the normally but moodily functioning. And no, I did not ask about my problems, because I knew what he would say and, unlike these poor folks unused to being magicians, could figure things out myself. Still, there was one highpoint of the evening, and it involved those folks above who fretted over the time it took their son to do his homework. I recognized them; their son had been in my son's self-contained special-ed class for a few weeks last year, before they huffily pulled him out and mainstreamed him. I particularly remembered the Back-to-School night for that class, in which this very mother had chewed out the teacher to such a degree that she made the woman cry. The issue that so enraged the mom? The teacher wasn't giving out enough homework, and the homework she gave was too easy.

Talk about being careful what you wish for.

It's so rare that you get to actually be there when what goes around finally does come around, but it's a gratifying experience. Worth a night out, for sure.

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