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How Schools Make Mistakes With Stressed Kids

Updated on October 22, 2012

School Problems

Every school staff person is well aware of the child that is completely incorrigible. It seems that there is nothing that anyone can do to help the child remain calm and avoid reactivity. It’s as if the child has a ‘hair trigger’ that results in not only the child becoming intensely upset, but involves the classroom being turned upside down. This ultimately impacts the learning of other children in the path of the upset child.

Response of school staff to these children is very often quite measured and logical at the onset of the behaviors at the start of the school year. In many cases, these children are already carrying mental health diagnosis intended to describe and articulate their behavioral or learning issues, ranging from such diagnoses as ADHD to Oppositional Defiant Disorder, to Pervasive Developmental Disorder. School intervention plans proceed to address the behaviors based on the mental health diagnosis and the body of logical intervention steps common in school settings (and basic parenting).

What the school staff usually discovers is that all of their well intentioned efforts are failing to positively impact the child’s negative behavior set. The result is often a hurried scramble to find other interventions, quite often in a ‘shotgun’ and desperate fashion to salvage the child’s school year (and staff sanity). In most cases, their efforts are doomed due to…well, lack of education.

The end result of months of trying to find a behavioral intervention that works, or months of stubborn insistence on one singular approach that is clearly not working is a school year destroyed for the child, a parent set for confrontation, and a frazzled and angry school staff. But there is hope for these situations, if all of the adults involved are able to be open to learning and willing to do the work needed to change their paradigm of the nature of the problem and the interventions that are needed. The problem, of course, is that not everyone (even teachers, ironically enough) are able to allow themselves to do this.

The first point of understanding is that a mental health diagnosis is by definition a ‘differential diagnosis’. This means that the psychologist who made the diagnosis has only the information that is given and viewed at the time of the diagnosis. Patients are notorious for leaving out important details that would alter the given diagnosis. The most accurate mental health diagnoses are those that are formed over time. Secondly, a child can have more than one mental/behavioral health diagnosis. Which of these is most important (meaning the one that needs to be dealt with first) may not be clear for some time in treatment. For example, a child with a primary diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, who’s behaviors are being managed in school by a verbal behavior approach may also have a history of very intense stressors in their history (such as trauma) that is not yet been defined as a stress disorder. The in school staff may find that their approach is not effective with this child, when the primary diagnosis indicates that it should be effective. The point is that all team member need to remain flexible to the definition and approaches to the problem.

The second point of understanding is that when a behavior plan is not working, it is incumbent on the adults to explore other options (diagnosis or not). In many cases, large institutions such as schools make such flexibility difficult due to the cumbersome nature of the size of the district, chain of command, and the politics of those invested in the use of a particular approach. In these situations, the child desperately needs an adult to step up and be their advocate. Since many such children are coming out of very chaotic and stressed households, the parent may not be the one to do this. And so the child may ‘slip through the cracks’.

The third point of understanding is that when the usual methods of behavioral control that are contained in the school staff’s behavior plan or arsenal of intervention strategies is not working, this is a clear indication that the child may be suffering from an undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed) stress reactivity. With the average ADHD or even Oppositional Defiant Disorder child, increasing pressure will at some point have the effect of the child backing down and complying with adult directives. The behavior may repeat sooner or later in the future, but for the moment, compliance is gained. In the case of the PDD child where verbal behavior approaches are being used (and has an unrecognized stress reactivity problem), the approach either escalates the negative behaviors, or produces none of the expected effects, even when the approaches are being done ‘by the book’.

What ensues are multiple meetings, observations, and cross accusations that someone is not performing the interventions correctly. Meanwhile, the child continues to suffer. More than suffer, actually; the child becomes more ill in their stress reactivity issue, and they start the long path to bitterness about the educational process. And time is wasting (often for years) in the child’s healing, growth, and development.

The fourth point of understanding is to learn about the nature of stress reactivity and the effective approaches to manage it. It is important to accept that every child has the potential to become highly stressed in the school environment, not just the children who have been identified as ‘problematic’ or come from difficult households, or carry a stress disorder mental health diagnosis. In addition, most school staff that have a number of difficult children in their school, along with the daily stressors of a normal school day and their own personal stressors can become moderately to highly stressed people themselves, which contributes to the reactivity in the identified child. Learning the gentle methods of intervention when a child is in a stress episode is not difficult to do, and the time invested will have a big payoff for the stress reactive child and the school staff who learn the Gentling approaches and methods.

To learn more about effective approaches with the children described above, go to:



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    • medor profile image

      medor 6 years ago from Michigan, USA

      This is great krillco... I have taught for over 12 years and chringed the way teachers back kids in the corner and don't leave them an out except for to misbehave... Bravo...

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