To Ritalin or Not To Ritalin

As a toddler I was the kid who repeatedly stuck his fingers in the electric sockets. My mother tells of my father slapping my hand for doing this and with tears streaming down my face I looked him in the eye and did it again, then another hand slap, then again, and another slap, over and over until my father gave up and carried me away. By age three I’d learned how to use the screwdriver and began taking everything in the house apart (like the reclining chair I removed all the screws from, then watched from the closet to see what would happen – it collapsed into pieces when our neighbor sat in it.) I was aggressive with other children, knocking them over and taking their toys. When my mother brought me to the playground the other mothers would gather their children and leave.

By first grade I was getting into fights every day at school. And in the second grade they diagnosed me as A.D.H.D. and put me on Ritalin. Although the Ritalin made me a bit easier to manage, I still spent a lot of time in the principal’s office. I made explosives out of model rocket engines in the basement and tested everything to see how well it would burn or what it looked like when I blew it up.

I was unfocused in school and found it difficult to sit down to read or write for more than a few minutes. My teachers described me as “not working up to my potential,” or “a good student if he would just try.” When you’re a child who can’t focus or control his impulses, most teachers treat you as if you either don’t understand what’s expected of you, or you simply don’t care. You spend your school years annoying and/or disappointing everyone and most teachers’ feeling for you is one of either condescension or chagrin.

I don’t know if I would have graduated high school at all if it hadn’t been for my success on the wrestling team and the fact that my mother was willing to take my dictation. Once a month she would type my papers for me while I’d pace between the kitchen and the living room calling them out to her.

Although school often left me feeling humiliated and angry, I made it through and was even admitted to the state university. (At the time they would admit you based solely on a decent SAT score.) But university looked like more of the same. Sit still, be quiet and regurgitate what we say. The only thing it seemed to offer was an education in competitive drinking, and since I’d already mastered that in high school, I didn’t see the point in staying. So after seven weeks at college I shaved my hair into a Mohawk, dropped out, and went surfing.

Ten years later I still carried the shame of being A.D.H.D. It had been a secret no one but me, the doctors and my parents knew. Ritalin was the disguise I needed to survive behind enemy lines. Every time I took that pill, I also swallowed the belief that I was broken, disordered and not like everyone else. But the last ten years had begun to teach me something else.

Instead of being the one who couldn’t sit still, I was the one who kept moving and got a lot done. Instead of being unable to focus on one thing, I was able to do several things at once and adapt quickly. Instead of being too impulsive and aggressive, I was spontaneous and driven. Instead of asking too many questions, I was a good problem solver. Instead of being unable to follow the rules, I was creative and unafraid to take risks. The flip side of those characteristics that had been called a disorder, and needed fixing with medication, were actually my strengths.

So after all this what do I think about putting children on Ritalin? First, every parent should know that Ritalin is a two-edged sword and not a silver bullet. The truth is that while Ritalin did some serious damage to my self-identity it also prevented untold damage that might have occurred had I not been medicated. While it postponed my learning to master and find the gifts in the mind I was born with, it also allowed me to fit into and survive the culture of public school.

The second thing parents should know is that behavior and neurology are malleable. A well thought out behavior plan and effective boundaries can make a big difference in how much self-regulation, impulse control and respect for others your child develops. The more a child is out-of-control the more the mind practices this and the better at out-of-control it gets. When adults effectively motivate respectful, in-control behavior in their child the child’s mind practices and gets better at this. Creating consequences that effectively motivate self-control is the key.

For instance if self-regulation were measured on a scale from one to ten, one being the least self-regulation, effective boundaries and a behavior plan could shift your child from a one to a four (or two to five etc…). While rating a four in self-regulation might not be perfect, it could mean the difference between being able to succeed in public school without medication or not. And that four in self-regulation combined with strong problem solving skills, creativity and enthusiasm could make for a very successful student.

When my parents decided to put me on Ritalin, like most parents, they did so not because it was an easy answer, but because it was the only answer they had. This is why I’ve worked as a Behavior Specialist with behavior problem children for the last 19 years, so that today’s parents will have other answers.

Helping Children Avoid Physical Aggression: "My Son Hits Other Kids"

Question:

My two-year-old son Jack is a hitter, and an occasional pusher. He usually gets physical when he’s fighting with another toddler over a toy, but sometimes it will come out of nowhere. I understand that this is normal behavior for a two-year-old, but it’s still embarrassing, not to mention traumatic for the child who gets hurt. My question is, what is the right way to respond when Jack hits or pushes another child? And is there anything I can do to reduce this impulse in him, or do I just need to wait for him to grow out of it? (You can assume that he’s well-rested and well-fed when these outbursts occur; I know kids are more likely to lash out when they’re tired or hungry.)

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

First, the solution:

When Jack hits or pushes another child (or adult) you should immediately remove him from the situation and guide him to a nearby spot where you can have him sit quietly next to you for one or two minutes.

While removing him from the situation you should say, “We don’t hit other people” and “When you hit someone you need a timeout.” You can phrase this in a way that’s most natural for you so long as you avoid adding judgment, anger, or yelling (so don’t use “wrong”, “bad”, “naughty” or any other pejorative comment). Then sit next to him and insist that he get quiet before you start his time out. “If you need to cry that’s okay. But I can’t start your time out until you can sit quietly.” So the first time you do this a one-minute time out can take 10 minutes (9 minutes of crying or tantrums and then the one or two quiet minutes).

It’s important that during the time out, or waiting for him to become quiet, you are neither talking nor cuddling with Jack. Otherwise, the time out time can become a reinforcer for the hitting you’re trying to stop. The time out is meant to be boring and frustrating, and conversation and cuddling remove this necessary frustration.

After the time out is over you should ask Jack “Why did you need to take a time out?” or “What did you do to ______ that made you have a time out?” And give him some time to come to the answer himself. This way he becomes a more proactive problem solver.

Now, the explanation:

There are two primary motivations driving a two-year-old’s pushing and hitting. First, emotionally he is trying to understand his own power and his emerging identity in relation to others. Second, intellectually his actions are exploring his environment in a quest to understand what the rules are and how things work.

Emotionally, two-year-old Jack is aware of his own power and needs but not yet aware of the power and needs of others. He enjoys asserting his power but feels anxiety at not fully understanding who’s in control. So while pushing and hitting are natural, they are also a cry for boundaries. He is trying to find out where he and his power end and you and your power begin. Only by coming up against the expressed will of another (mostly you), does he begin to understand others as like himself. Your giving him firm, consistent action consequences will enable him to develop capacities for intimacy (a real awareness of others as equal to himself), will relieve the anxiety he feels because he will feel you’re in control, and will allow him to slowly develop the capacity for self-control and emotional regulation. (For a more in-depth explanation of this stage of development go to my blog A Seismic Shift In Parenting and the succeeding three blogs.)

Intellectually, Jack wants to know what happens when he hits and pushes. Does he get what he wants? Does he get to talk to mom for a few minutes? Does he have to say the words “I’m sorry”? So it’s important that your response sends a clear message to Jack: “Hitting and pushing will not get you what you want. Rather, they will result in you feeling frustrated.” Let the consequence create frustration around his choice as opposed to having your anger, judgment or moralizing create shame or guilt in his assertion of his power. In this way you can coach him into an understanding of the cause and effect nature of his choices and interdependent autonomy.

Lastly, avoid the common mistake of trying to substitute reasoned discussion for real consequences. Your two-year-old is trying to learn the meaning of his actions and your words. If your words aren’t rooted firmly in action then your son will learn that your words aren’t dependable and that he can use them for manipulation. Discussions are fine after the consequence is finished.

Learn more by exploring raisinglions.com or contact us.

Finding a Balance Between 'Strict' and 'Permissive' Parenting

Question:

I’m a divorced mother of a 6-year-old. My ex is always giving in to whatever my daughter wants. When she comes back to me I feel like the bad cop because I enforce boundaries. My ex says I’m too strict, and my daughter isn’t so happy with me either. What should I do?

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

When parents are separated and a child is being raised in two different households there is always a tendency to try and compensate for what the other parent is doing wrong or to compensate for the short amount of time you have with your child by being more indulgent than you would otherwise be.

So the first rule is: don’t parent in reaction to what your ex is doing.  Stick with your best instincts and work to create a balanced approach in your relationship with your daughter.  You won’t improve your daughter’s upbringing by either being stricter because your ex is too lenient or by being more lenient because your ex is too strict.  A too-strict relationship with your daughter won’t remedy the too lenient one she has with her father.  It will only mean she has two unbalanced relationships instead of just one.

Next, to the extent that it’s possible, try to unite with your ex in terms of the ways you both parent your daughter.  Try to agree on bedtimes, morning routines, and guidelines about play dates and even the ways you set boundaries and give consequences.  Perhaps you can ask him to suggest a parenting book he likes and then read it to find common ground.

After a discussion or mutual reading, I suggest writing down some points that you think are most important.  Present it to him by letting him know this is just a first step in the two of you being unified and ask him to freely change or add to anything you’ve written.  There is a lot of power in having some basic points written down that you both agree on.

Lastly, the “bad cop” feeling you’re having can be mitigated by doing your best to set boundaries in a compassionate and sympathetic tone.  Parents often feel it necessary to give consequences and enforce boundaries in a tone that tells their child how angry, upset, or disappointed they are.  It’s as though they don’t trust that the consequence or boundary will be enough to change the behavior they don’t like so they need to add an additional emotional motivator.

But the emotionally charged tone when giving a consequence is a form of emotional manipulation that undermines your relationship and the autonomy of your daughter.

I suggest trying to do two things simultaneously: be firm in your setting of boundaries and consequences, and while doing this acknowledge your child’s autonomy, respect her decisions, and keep any judgment of them out of your voice.  Let the boundary do the work of shifting the behaviors –not emotional manipulation.

Here are a couple of examples of how that might sound:

“Yes, I realize your father puts away your toys for you when you’re at his house, and if you can get him to do that for you that’s between the two of you.  But when you’re in my house you need to clean up after yourself before you do anything else.”

“Yes, I realize you hate sitting in timeout.  Timeouts aren’t supposed to be fun. But if you decide to call Mommy “stupid” you’re going to get a timeout.  You’re the only one who can control what you say, not me.  I just control the consequences.”

Learn more by exploring raisinglions.com or contact us.

Treating an Airline Flight With a Small Child Like Game Day

Question:

My wife’s family lives far away; mine lives local. Since our two-year-old was born we’ve flown five times and it’s getting to be a nightmare. I don’t know if any of you have travelled with a toddler but we could really use some tips and advice because between the whining and the tantrums and the squirming on the plane I swear that I never want to leave my state again. I’m normally a very nice person. But not when we fly. Help!

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

Sometimes, no matter what you do, or how well you do it, flying with two-year-olds can drive you crazy.  At two years old, children are in the middle of redefining their relationship with their parents; they are in a developmental stage that is characterized by conflict and testing boundaries.  Add to this the inability to move around a plane, the cabin pressure’s effect on their ears, and the strange and unfamiliar environment and it can quickly become an overwhelming experience for a toddler.  And when this happens it’s natural to feel like they’re holding you hostage.  When flying, I’m often more annoyed with the irate passenger who’s complaining to the flight attendant than I am with the parent trying their best to deal with a screaming child.

Having said that, there are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of a good flying experience with your toddler:

“Never do on Game Day what you haven’t done in practice.”

Flying with children is Game Day.  In order to have a chance of controlling your toddler on an airplane you must have first successfully handled those same behaviors at home, in restaurants, and in the car.  Having a toddler you can successfully fly with has more to do with what you do when you’re not flying than what you do when you are flying.

Although you might find certain behaviors and demands acceptable when you’re driving or eating out with your toddler, try to hold them to a standard of behavior that would be acceptable when flying.  This is the practice time and should give you an indication about what you can expect from them when flying.

Use a trip to the restaurant to teach them to stay in a seat for gradually longer periods of time.  Bring toys and games that they can play with without disturbing the other patrons.  Get a sense of how long they can sit and be quietly entertained without needing to get up from the table, then use different strategies to gradually increase this time until they can sit for an entire hour.  This will also give you an idea of what and how much to pack for a long flight.

Prepare them for the flight by talking about it and explaining what’s going to happen and what they should expect.  Have car rides where you pretend that you’re on the plane.  Teach them about each step of the trip then ask them to tell you while they imagine it.  Build anticipation about the trip.

Prepare special items for the trip.

  • Have them choose some special travel games, books or toys that can’t be opened until the plane takes off, then another for after the meal, and perhaps a third for after the movie.  Or if you prefer, you can have surprises that you give them at crucial moments on the flight when they’re especially bored.  Over-prepare! It’s better to have more than you need to keep your toddler engaged than not enough.
  • Bring your toddler’s favorite foods and snacks.  Don’t count on finding foods they’ll like at the airport or on the plane.
  • If you like to limit the time your child spends watching videos or playing games on your laptop, in-flight might be the best time to indulge them with these.

Lastly, consider booking flights that are during your toddler’s normal sleep times.  The easiest flights with a toddler will be the ones they sleep through.

If all this fails and your toddler is still driving you and everyone around a little crazy, consider offering to buy the person next to you a cocktail or a sandwich and tell them how much you appreciate their good-natured tolerance (even if they look irate and not very tolerant).

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.

The Compassionate Time Out

Although often misunderstood, when used correctly, time-outs are a simple and effective tool for managing behavior and helping your child develop the ability for self-regulation and deferred gratification.  This blog will focus on understanding how to use this powerful parenting tool.

If you initially use time-outs frequently for minor misbehavior before things get too severe in a short time you will need to use them less and less because your children will take your rules and boundaries seriously.  I use short (one-minute) time-outs with 2 to 16-year-olds to great effect at home and in the classroom.  Because the time-out is so short I get very little resistance once I’ve established a no-negotiation precedent.  I also stay strict about the time-out doubling if I get an argument.  You can take the emotional/oppositional element out of it with comments like, “You’re not it trouble.  I just need you to take a one-minute break” and “It’s no big deal.  You can come back to what you’re doing in one-minute.”

While longer time-outs may be necessary for more severe behavior (i.e. hitting) it is much easier to give frequent short time-outs for small behaviors and children are more likely to take your direction before things get too heated.  Think of yourself as an emotional air conditioner that turns on with a minute or two of cool air when things get to 75° instead of waiting until the temperature reaches 90°.

Recently someone asked me about how to handle crying during time-outs.  She and her friend had both read in my book Raising Lions that time-outs shouldn’t start until the child stops crying.  However, when she watched her friend use do this it didn’t look right to her.  When her friend’s 4-year-old son was given a time-out he began to immediately cry.  His mother told him to “Stop Crying!” and “I’m not going to start your time-out until you’re quiet.”  The boy’s crying continued and even got louder.  Every minute or so his mother would tell him “You need to stop!” or “I’ve told you to stop the crying.”  The other woman felt like it was unfair and ineffective to yell at the boy for crying and asked me what I thought.  Below is my response.

While time-outs shouldn’t start until your child has stopped crying you should also let your children know that crying is perfectly acceptable and natural.  The last thing we want to do is shame them for crying or create a power struggle when there’s no need for one.  So when a child is crying when they’re on time-out we can empathize and recognize their power while still holding a firm boundary.

If a child is crying when I’ve given them a time-out I might say, “Yeah, time-outs aren’t any fun.  If you need to cry that’s okay.  When you’re finished crying we’ll start the time-out”  (Sometimes when I say this the crying gets louder, they might even cry louder and yell, “I want to start the time-out now!” which is a clear indication the crying is at least in part a manipulation.)

If the crying continues I do my best to ignore it (so long as the child remains in the time-out chair) and will occasionally say to them, “Let me know when you’re finished and I’ll start your time-out.”  My tone is tender and empathetic, coach not adversary.  I also make an effort to let the child know that they, not me, have control over when they stop crying and therefore also control when the time-out starts. By recognizing their power and letting them know that I have no desire to control their choices I’m able to avoid a power struggle over that which I really have no control.

The purpose of requiring your child to stop crying before a time-out starts is so they will exercise self-regulation after a moment that lacked self-regulation.  Additionally, we want to take away any manipulation that might be motivating the crying.  Quite often, children have learned that if they cry loud enough then the adult will begin negotiating with them and the original consequence will be amended.  So crying or tantrums become effective tools to avoid or decrease consequences for behavior.

Time-outs are meant to be boring, a minute or two when the child is denied access to interaction or activities that are fun.  If an adult holds and comforts a child who’s crying because they’ve been given a time-out they are creating a reward in response to the misbehavior they are trying to discourage.

Time-outs are only effective if they’re boring.  If a parent or teacher talks with or comforts a child in an attempt to calm them down during the time-out they make the time-out interesting and deny the child the opportunity to exercise the psychological muscles of self- regulation and control.

The ideal time-out combines strictness and compassion in the same moment.  It asserts firmly the boundary while acknowledging the child’s power and choices without judgment.

Joe Newman

The Modern Time Out

Although they’re often misunderstood, when used correctly, time-outs are a simple and effective tool for managing behavior and helping your child develop the ability for self-regulation and deferred gratification.  This month’s series will focus on understanding how to use this powerful parenting tool.

Use time-outs frequently for minor misbehavior before things get too severe.  I use short (one-minute) time-outs with 2 to 16-year-olds to great effect at home and in the classroom.  Because the time-out is so short I get very little resistance once I’ve established a no-negotiation precedent.  I also stay strict about the time-out doubling if I get an argument.  You can take the emotional/oppositional element out of it with comments like, “You’re not it trouble.  I just need you to take a one-minute break” and “It’s no big deal.  You can come back to what you’re doing in one-minute.”

While longer time-outs may be necessary for more severe behavior (i.e. hitting) it is much easier to give frequent short time-outs for small behaviors and children are more likely to take your direction before things get too heated.  Think of yourself as an emotional air conditioner that turns on with a minute or two of cool air when things get to 75° instead of waiting until the temperature reaches 90°.

Recently someone asked me about how to handle crying during time-outs.  She and her friend had both read in my book Raising Lions that time-outs shouldn’t start until the child stops crying.  However, when she watched her friend use do this it didn’t look right to her.  When her friend’s 4-year-old son was given a time-out he began to immediately cry.  His mother told him to “Stop Crying!” and “I’m not going to start your time-out until you’re quiet.”  The boy’s crying continued and even got louder.  Every minute or so his mother would tell him “You need to stop!” or “I’ve told you to stop the crying.”  The other woman felt like it was unfair and ineffective to yell at the boy for crying and asked me what I thought.  Below is my response.

While time-outs shouldn’t start until your child has stopped crying you should also let your children know that crying is perfectly acceptable and natural.  The last thing we want to do is shame them for crying or create a power struggle when there’s no need for one.  So when a child is crying when they’re on time-out we can empathize and recognize their power while still holding a firm boundary.

If a child is crying when I’ve given them a time-out I might say, “Yeah, time-outs aren’t any fun.  If you need to cry that’s okay.  When you’re finished crying we’ll start the time-out”  (Sometimes when I say this the crying gets louder, they might even cry louder and yell, “I want to start the time-out now!” which is a clear indication the crying is at least in part a manipulation.)

If the crying continues I do my best to ignore it (so long as the child remains in the time-out chair) and will occasionally say to them, “Let me know when you’re finished and I’ll start your time-out.”  My tone is tender and empathetic, coach not adversary.  I also make an effort to let the child know that they, not me, have control over when they stop crying and therefore also control when the time-out starts. By recognizing their power and letting them know that I have no desire to control their choices I’m able to avoid a power struggle over that which I really have no control.

The purpose of requiring your child to stop crying before a time-out starts is so they will exercise self-regulation after a moment that lacked self-regulation.  Additionally, we want to take away any manipulation that might be motivating the crying.  Quite often, children have learned that if they cry loud enough then the adult will begin negotiating with them and the original consequence will be amended.  So crying or tantrums become effective tools to avoid or decrease consequences for behavior.

Time-outs are meant to be boring, a minute or two when the child is denied access to interaction or activities that are fun.  If an adult holds and comforts a child who’s crying because they’ve been given a time-out they are creating a reward in response to the misbehavior they are trying to discourage.

Time-outs are only effective if they’re boring.  If a parent or teacher talks with or comforts a child in an attempt to calm them down during the time-out they make the time-out interesting and deny the child the opportunity to exercise the psychological muscles of self- regulation and control.

The ideal time-out combines strictness and compassion in the same moment.  It asserts firmly the boundary while acknowledging the child’s power and choices without judgment.

"I Hate Polite Children"

I remember sitting in a kindergarten class when all the children were on the carpet while the teacher read to them. A little girl had asked the teacher something after which the teacher announced in a loud voice, “Did you hear the way Kristen said that! That was so polite. I love polite children.”

Immediately, the five-year-old boy I’d been sent in to work with said in an equally loud voice, “I hatepolite children!”  The teacher was livid and I quickly took Jimmy outside the class to sit for a time-out.

Jimmy was a handful. During his first six weeks of kindergarten, all three of the behavior specialists who’d been sent to work with him had quit. He would run away, hit or spit on you when you tried to hold him, he couldn’t sit still for a moment, he always seemed angry, and he could dish out the sarcasm and insults like a road comic. But Jimmy was also tender, articulate and funny—more so than the other children. He could tell when people didn’t like him; he just didn’t understand why. He had a brother who was three years older, well-behaved, better looking, more athletic, polite and clearly his mother’s favorite.

It probably didn’t take Jimmy long to realize that the rules at school weren’t much different than the rules at home. If you were polite, could sit still and keep your hands to yourself and focus on what people told you, then the teachers liked you, you were praised and your skills were applauded.  But if you were impulsive, funny, said the first thing that popped into your head and had a hard time concentrating on the thing in front of you, like Jimmy, you were constantly being corrected, the teachers were annoyed by you. You were always in trouble.

If you know you’re in a situation were you’d never win, why not have some fun? Perhaps you can at least leave with your dignity. Jimmy knew he was “the bad kid.” Under these rules, even with his greatest efforts he would only be a below average polite kid. Why not be the best bad kid? At least there’s some pride in that.

Jimmy’s story is one that illustrates that styles of classroom management and communication play a major part in how children view themselves, and therefore how they behave in a classroom. A child who struggles to succeed in school, whether because of attention or learning differences, is much more likely to develop a negative self-identity at school. For instance, a child who has no problem focusing on activities that involve building and moving but has great difficulties focusing on activities that require sitting and listening is likely to get a lot of negative feedback about their performance at school.

Watch these children in the classroom, or in a home, and count how many times they get comments correcting or criticizing vs. how many comments praising or approving of what they are doing. If a child receives ninety correcting or criticizing comments to every ten praising or approving comments, that child will have a negative self-image. Even if the teacher, or parent, is making special efforts to praise, that child will begin to learn that who she is in that classroom is mostly wrong. If this continues for a while the child will begin to feel that, at school, she is a bad boy/girl.

Sometimes the child with the worst attitude is the child with the biggest struggle.  It’s important to remember that a child’s attitude toward school is often shaped by the reactions they get from parents and teachers. When we take a deeper look at children with behavior problems we can see the natural and healthy motivation that underlies their disruptive behavior.

The key to turning around the above scenario is to learn how to give consequences that emphasize the child’s choices and power while taking all judgment and emotion out of our language when we give these consequences.  And perhaps most importantly, to speak with a tone of understanding and empathy while still setting firm boundaries for behavior in a classroom or at home.  In this way a child who is struggling and angry can feel that the adult is more their coach than their adversary while learning to adapt to difficult and challenging situations.

Joe Newman

Bullying and Teasing

A mother recently asked me what I thought about her going in to her son’s fourth grade class in order to observe and perhaps intervene to stop another boy who was taunting, teasing and excluding her son.

Here’s my response:

- Mom coming to school to observe/intervene will lower her son’s status with his peers, and will elevate the status of those who may be mistreating him.  Children in the forth grade are very aware of, and learning how to wield, social power.  The presence of his mother will be seen as a sign of his weakness and lack of social power.

Children in the forth grade are concerned with social power, not right or wrong.  Social power is unconcerned with whether an action is good or bad, moral or immoral, right or wrong.  A hurtful/cruel action (mocking, shunning, physically intimidating, insulting) toward another can be just as effective at establishing social power as a helpful/kind action (encouraging, including, complimenting).  Children who wield a lot of social power are admired and have status over their peers.  (For more about this see the research in the new book Nurture Shock, chapters 4 and 9, by Bronson and Merryman).

If the other children believe that including her son in their play and social interactions is a responsibility or obligation they will have less natural desire/intrinsic motivation to do so.  Therefore her son increases his social power at this stage when he actively seeks out other friends and makes a strong effort to participate in other activities and with alternate social groups during recess and free time.  In the literature about motivation this is called the “Tom Sawyer Effect” (in reference to Tom’s ability to get others to paint a fence by making in appear an opportunity rather than an obligation – See the new bookDrive by Daniel Pink).

Additionally, she should coach her son to do his best not to hold any ill feelings or bitterness toward those who may have excluded him (at least not outwardly).  He will be best served by being nice then moving away and finding other friends/activities.

When a parent sees their child suffering because of the cruelty of other children there is a very natural urge to rush in and make it stop.  Unfortunately, by the time children reach grade school this approach can often backfire, causing children to loose important social power and denying them the opportunity to develop the skills and experience to negotiate these difficult social waters themselves.  This passage below from my book Raising Lions addresses the mindset at the core of this switch from protector to coach.

“When guiding a child through a period of frustration or difficulty, there are moments when the child will not know what to do or how to solve their problem. This is a void, an empty space, that the adult must resist filling. These moments require waiting and faith. Waiting for the child to fill this void and faith that the child can and will survive this frustrating and confusing moment. To fill this void for the child, to solve the problem that the child might have solved given time and faith, is to rob them of the creative moment in which they fill this void themselves and discover their real power. Your faith and calm during these moments when your child is facing this void become the model for the calm your child will internalize when facing difficulties, frustrations and his own imperfection in the future.”

Passive Tantrums and the Autistic Spectrum

A passive tantrum is when a child feigns inability or lack of understanding in order to avoid difficulty, frustration or effort.

A few weeks ago a third grade teacher told me about her first experience using my method in Raising Lions with a student named Jackson she suspected of engaging in passive tantrums.

Jackson was an eight-year-old who was very inconsistent in his ability to focus and complete most class work.  Most of the time he sauntered slowly through his assignments and needed constant prompting to stay on task or he would slowly drift into doodling on the sides of his papers, playing with something in his desk or talking quietly to the boy next to him.  When prompted by Ms. Gibson (his teacher) he would often tell her he didn’t know what to do next or he didn’t understand despite his apparent understanding only a few minutes before.  Because Jackson showed difficulty comprehending social interactions and communications, and had some difficulty making friends he was diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum.

Ms. Gibson noticed that when Jackson was excited about an assignment he readily understood her communication, remembered the directions and moved through the class work at a good pace without assistance.

One morning, when Jackson had been sauntering through his class work at a particularly leisurely pace, Ms. Gibson decided to see how much he was actually capable of.  During the lesson right before lunch the students had been given about 25 minutes in which to write three sentences.  Jackson had only finished writing one.

When the bell rang for lunch and Ms. Gibson excused the class she called Jackson over to her desk, “I need you to finish your last two sentences before you go to lunch.”  A moment later Jackson went to his cubby got his lunch and brought it to his desk.  Ms. Gibson saw this and said, “Jackson, maybe you didn’t understand, but you can’t have your lunch until you finish those two sentences.”  A minute later she heard his bag rustling and saw that Jackson was taking out his sandwich.  She walked over to him, placed her hands on his sandwich, and said, “I can see you really want to eat your lunch.  However, you won’t be able to have your lunch until you’ve finished writing your two sentences so I’m going to put your lunch on my desk till you’re finished.”  She took his sandwich, put it back in the bag and sat it on her desk.

Jackson sat without saying anything for a few moments.  Then he picked up his pencil and began writing.  45 seconds later he had finished writing his two sentences (a task that on a good day might have taken him 5 minutes).  He showed his paper to Ms. Gibson and said, “Can I go to lunch now?”  And she gave him his lunch and he left the room.

From that day forward Ms. Gibson shifted her expectation of what Jackson was capable of.  She set natural consequences for not completing work she thought he might be capable of and created frustration around those behaviors she felt Jackson could change when motivated.  She began to assume understanding and ability where before she had assumed inability and insisted that he complete more work independently.  And in the month that followed the amount of class work that Jackson would complete in a day almost doubled.

I see children like Jackson in every classroom I visit.  Children who have learned to camouflage their actual abilities in order to avoid frustration and difficulty and assert power and control over adults (the passive tantrum).

In a culture where parents have been taught to empower their children in every way possible we need to be aware that children will find more creative ways to assert this power, even if it means feigning inability.  Add to this the fact that parents and teachers are taught to be constantly on the lookout for signs of a disorder so as to intervene as early as possible.  Consequently, parents and teachers are more likely to assume inability and react by accommodating, rather than frustrating, these behaviors and many children quickly learn that a passive tantrum is an effective way to avoid difficulty and assert control.

When the new statistics came out in March about the sharp rise in children who are being diagnosed as on the Autistic Spectrum I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of these children were children like Jackson who had learned (and could therefore unlearn) the patterns of the passive tantrum.

The Evil Sherriff??

I just finished watching the viral video of a police office handcuffing a boy above the elbows and refusing to let him loose until he stops kicking and is respectful.  Apparently the child took a swing at the officer when he appeared, and this was his reaction.

 

While the majority of reactions to this tend to be “Sheriff bad!” or “Sheriff good!” this event can only be understood by taking a couple of steps back and looking at why a sheriff was called in to deal with an 8-year-old boy in the first place. 

The sheriff was called in to deal with this child because no one in the school was allowed to put their hands on this child.  Inevitably, strong willed children figure this out quickly and push the boundaries with teachers.

So what usually happens when children become physically aggressive with staff at school?  At most public schools the staff isn’t allowed to place hands on a child.  The child hits the teacher (or kicks them, or throws something at them) and the teacher must try to talk to them until they calm down or get someone else who can.  Some teachers have been given direction to evacuate the classroom of all but the tantruming child.  If the physical aggression is a regular occurrence, the school will likely write up an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Sometimes this includes a stipulation that the staff can restrain the child.  If the school can’t handle the continued aggression, the child may be moved to a Non-Public School (NPS) with staff who are trained to physically restrain children. 

But in the typical public school the hands of the teaching staff and administrators have been tied, and they are rendered ineffective against any strong willed child who decides to have a tantrum that includes hitting and throwing things (chairs, books, desks, etc).  So they call the police, and the police do what they are trained to do.  All things considered, I think the officer in this video behaved in a calm and compassionate manner.  He’s not trained in methods to physically hold and de-escalate a child until they calm down.  He’s trained to use handcuffs when necessary and not to release someone who is still non-compliant and aggressive.

On a related note: if those who are wildly offended by this video were to watch video of professionally trained individuals restraining out of control children, they would likely be equally offended.  These restrains can go on for an hour or more.

The bigger problem is two-fold.  First, a higher and higher percentage of children are willing to have tantrums that include hitting and assaulting their parents, teachers and other children.  These children have realized that there is no line in the sand where an adult will physically stop and contain them, and they proceed accordingly. 

Second, we deal with physically aggressive children without any comprehensive plan (or we wait until a child has been put into an NPS and let them come up with a plan).  But most aggressive children never make it to an NPS, because school districts are understandingly reluctant to take on this financial burden.  Instead schools encourage parents to use daily chemical restraints, otherwise known as psycho-pharmaceuticals.  But I don’t place too much blame on schools.  We live in a culture that pathologizes any child with consistently willful behaviors, and then tells schools they have no right to put hands on children when they hit their teachers. 

I realize there are those who will object to my saying that children “choose” or “decide” to be aggressive or out of control.  These people will say the disorder the child has prevents them from having the ability of self-regulation.  This is exactly the kind of enabling thinking that is at the root of this epidemic of out of control children.

Just because a child has a diagnosed disorder or disability (ADHD or PTSD), this doesn’t mean they can’t also be clever, manipulative or willful.  The labels don’t define the child. The child may have the disorder, but they also have a range of different abilities like any child.   Just because you have difficulty focusing, doesn’t mean you can’t be manipulative also.  

I’ve seen children with serious developmental disabilities learn to control their physical aggression when a consistent set of predictable, manageable consequences is put in place to frustrate those outbursts.  But rather than setting real boundaries for children, it’s become PC to think any child with any kind of disorder is also completely stupid.  If not, why would they excuse these children from basic reasoning and an understanding of cause and effect simply because they are ADHD? 

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t advocate restraining children in ways that are reactionary, punitive or inconsistent.  But if we’re going to deal honestly, and humanely with children who will strike and defy not only there parents and teachers, but police officers, we need to understand that physically stopping and restraining these children will need to be part of a comprehensive behavior plan.  The sheriff that was called in to restrain the child in the video is a pawn in a system that is misguided and broken, and blaming the pawn won’t solve the bigger problem.