Scream Louder, I Can’t Hear You

Imagine that you are in pain and no matter what you say or do, you are ignored. Would you continue to ask for help? Would you scream in desperation in an attempt to be heard? At what point would you give up or give in to your circumstances?

imagesCA08RGEMIf an infant is crying, a parent will do his/her best to identify and respond to what the child needs.The cry is a baby’s means of communication. As a child develops, behaviors become more complex. Sometimes a child needs attention and sometimes a child wants attention. As the child develops their voice, they must gain the skills to communicate in ways that are appropriate and effective.

Students with special needs often struggle to communicate effectively and to be understood by others. Deficits associated with their disability make this especially difficult. Some students struggle to speak in words, some use words differently, and some have only gestures. Behaviors are a clue that many professionals and parents struggle to interpret. Led by educated guesses, assumptions, and our best deductions, it can become an endless exercise in trial and error.

Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) are a tool that allows us to examine what we know about a student and to analyze the function of a behavior. Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) expand upon this information by outlining strategies for increasing or decreasing certain behaviors as well as accommodations to support the student’s specific needs.

I can’t begin to tell you how many FBAs and BIPs that I’ve read that point to the underlying cause of a student’s behavior as a means for gaining attention. The suggested response is to ignore the behavior because giving attention may reinforce the inappropriate behavior. While I understand the reasons for this approach and I have seen when ignoring may be an effective strategy, I feel that ignoring is often misapplied or over-used and in some cases it becomes an excuse for professionals or parents to stop thinking or pursuing the underlying need that is driving the behavior.

In my career, I’ve done my share of ignoring. I’m ashamed to admit that there was I time when I reached that point of indifference, where I settled for the belief that behavior is that simple. I had been desensitized by the realities of working with kids who demonstrate challenging behaviors. Kicking and screaming just came with the territory. I had learned to tune it out, and no longer had that sense of urgency to calm a child in distress.

I think we have to be careful with how we interpret behaviors, paying careful attention to the child’s intention. Is the behavior an issue of motivation or is there a missing skill? I would argue that most of the time, kids with special needs genuinely need attention and they rarely want to be disruptive. Even when a behavior looks like defiance, there is often an underlying missing skill that if present would result in a more appropriate behavior.

Am I saying that adults should let go of all expectations and appease every desire? Absolutely not. But I think we must never ignore a child in distress and we must demonstrate empathy so that students begin to feel heard. This begins with moving past ignoring and opening our eyes and ears to hear the message.

Giving students a voice and the skills to advocate for their needs is perhaps the most important aspect of their development. If students have to scream in order to be heard, then maybe we’re missing the most obvious clue of all. Screaming is a flashing red light indicating that there’s an important message worth listening to. We must rid ourselves of the assumptions and beliefs that hinder our ability to do so.

When we choose to ignore a student in distress, I wonder what gets reinforced. Are we teaching kids that what they think or feel doesn’t matter… that they have to scream louder and longer in order to be heard… or that it’s better to be compliant or quiet than to have a voice that allows them to say what they really need?

I’m amazed by the courage and the resilience of students who have refused to give up and who continue to fight to be heard. Still I wonder how many students have given up, seemingly compliant and calm, yet screaming on the inside.…