A Letter to a teacher
January 27, 2018
While traveling last month, I visited a school in Tucson to provide a consultation for a first grader of the Navaho Nation. This student the school wanted help with was identified as the most challenging in their school; the principal and counselor both described him as "ferrel."
I had one hour to observe, and was able to meet with the teacher only briefly. This is not my favorite way to work. I would much rather have sat with the teacher and heard about her experience with the student and the things that she felt would work for her. Time was short, however, and the letter was the best I could do in the situation. After observing him for an hour, I wrote the teacher the following suggestions. (All names have been changed.) If any of you have feedback or ideas, please put them in the comments below so that we can all learn from each other.
I first want to reiterate what great skills you have in developing your students’ social and emotional development with your exceptional ability to connect with them. I appreciate the amount of energy that takes, and know that you are aware of how your efforts pay off in gigantic dividends for those children.
Here are some things I noticed about Abel today:
He is eager to please you and has a desire to connect with you.
He is easily overcome with emotion, rendering him speechless when you do connect with him.
He looks unfocused when he is off-task, wandering or wiggly. This suggests that his prefrontal cortex has low activity and there is some spaciness. (The prefrontal cortex inhibits impulsive behavior, so we want to get this online.)
Because his bids for attention are not easily noticeable, they fail to elicit the response from others he is looking for.
When he senses that he is not noticed, his stress and anxiety rise and he engages in uncooperative behavior.
From the limited observation I made, Abel’s behaviors appear to be based more on his need to connect than on sensory integration deficits. I gathered this from watching him try to make contact with others and fail, and then engage in uncooperative behaviors directly afterwards. Below are some recommendations to increase Abel's sense of connection in your classroom.
Connect Whenever in Proximity
I saw how his anxiety would increase when you came near and did not engage with him. This seemed to set him off to leave his work and wander the classroom. A reassuring pat or squeeze on the shoulder might work to calm his anxiety. That could be all it will take for him to know that you notice him.
Detect his Bids for Connection
When Abel comes anywhere into your proximity, this could be a bid for connection. It is difficult to notice because his bids are nonverbal and lack any eye contact. I, myself, failed to notice this when we were in the library. Kelli and I were seated at a table, and Abel approached us while appearing to be engrossed in flipping the pages of an Angry Birds book. Kelli asked him if he liked Angry Birds. He indicated that he did without looking up. Both Kelli and I were then silent watching him flip the pages, so he went away. Had I realized that this is his way of trying to engage, I would have invited him over to look at the book with him to help fill his emotional cup. Unfortunately, when his side of the conversation seemed flat, it did not occur to me to jump on the opportunity until hours later. I tell you this because it might be difficult to engage with him when he does not seem to hold up his end. We are socialized to respond to eye contact and animated speech, so it will take a lot of effort to pay attention to Abel's quiet way of engaging. Other children will come and make eye contact and chat you up, and this fills their cups. Being Native, is it not necessarily a part of Abel’s culture to do this, nor has he acquired the skill. In our culture, it’s noisier, the pace is faster, and people need to talk and interact a lot in order to get their need for connection met. This cultural mismatch puts him at a disadvantage in being able to get the connection his brain needs in order for his executive function to kick into gear. Because his behavior seems to be based on a relational need, it is connection that will most likely flip his prefrontal cortex on. He will likely have fewer impulsive behaviors if you can pick up on his cues and respond before discouragement causes him to become emotionally dysregulated. Fortunately, if there is any teacher who could possibly do this, it is you.
Use a Connection Sandwich for Corrections
Abel already responds to directions when he is regulated, so this is a less obvious need. Each time he is told to do something, there is also the suggestion that he is doing something wrong. This idea erodes his sense of connection over time, gradually emptying his cup. To prevent discouragement, make a connection before and after any corrections whenever possible. I call this a Connection Sandwich. Fill his cup with a connection, make a correction, then fill up what was lost from the correction. Here’s how it might look:
When he’s wandering around and should be seated:
“I see you feel like walking around right now. Take a couple more steps if you need to, and then have a seat.” Once he sits, “I see you needed six steps. Thank you for helping things settle down in here.”
When he’s throwing his Angry Bird stuffy in the air:
Smile at him and say, “I'm glad you you like that stuffy. Please hold it still so it won’t be so distracting for me.” (Be careful not to use the word "but.") Give yourself a slow count of five to give his prefrontal cortex time to absorb the idea and start itself up to follow your directions, or repeat to give him another chance to hear you. (You are already doing these things.) Then, “You’re making it easier for me by holding onto that. Thanks.”
When he’s not getting in line or is doing something dangerous:
“Oh, did I forget to check in with you after recess? I’m sorry, I got distracted when ___ ran off. Come on over and let’s do our secret handshake” (or some other ritual you have for just these kinds of situations). There’s a teacher who has a special secret handshake for every student in his class. That would be hard for me to remember, but you get the idea. When he isn’t cooperative, it could be because he got discouraged from failing to get a connection from you. Something like a knock-knock joke, a quick story about something you saw on the way to school, or anything else that is just for him could get him back on track. Just have a couple of these connection tools ready for when his brain goes offline.
You are clearly this boy’s sun. Every time you talk to him, the warmth and light he gets from that bowls him over. At first, your attention might dysregulate him a little. I notice that he was so overcome with emotion when you gave him a connection that he couldn’t talk. Sometimes kids get so excited that they are getting their needs met, it’s stressful for them, and their difficult behaviors get stronger before they improve. If this happens, give him a couple of weeks to get used to the interventions.
Also, remember that this intervention is not as time consuming as it may seem. A minimum of 60 seconds a day makes an enormous difference: twice for 30 seconds, 3 times for 20 seconds, 10 times for 6 seconds, or 30 times for 2 seconds (a quick “hey, buddy, I’m glad you’re here” or the shoulder squeeze). While it does not take a lot of time, it does take a great deal of effort to keep it in mind. Once he starts feeling more secure and is able to get more connected to his classmates, you should be able to taper off the amount of connection that comes from you.
Please let me know how it goes and if there is anything else I can do to help. I am grateful that there are people in the world as willing and as skilled as you to do this hard important work. I am so glad you are a teacher!
All My Best,
Betty Peralta, MIT, LMHCA, IMH-E® (III)