Children sitting in classrooms with undetected or misdiagnosed needs are one of the greatest travesties in America’s public school system. A child whose needs go unmet can become increasingly frustrated and eventually lash out at those entrusted to teach them. These misunderstood children become anxious and their fight-or-flight instinct is engaged. For some, most of their time at school is spent scanning their surroundings for threats. In time, these children are incorrectly deemed eligible under the emotionally and behavior disorders category and placed in the “Behavioral Disorder” box. Once this label is attached to them, it is incredibly difficult to undo.
Typically a child with this label will be placed in a school district’s behavior disorder program, a placement for children with a behavioral or emotional disorder. Often times, particularly with older students, it is a self-contained classroom with little to no integration with “typically developing” peers. More times than not, the classroom disciplinary system is one of reward or punishment. Comply and follow directions and you will be rewarded. Act out or defy and you will be punished.
It is not uncommon for a child placed in this program to be prone to increased agitation and acts of physical aggression. When they feel threatened, the amygdala activates their fight-or-flight response and what little control they may have disappears. This is called “Amygdala Hijack.” The child may yell, throw objects, kick, hit, or flee. It is easy to look at this behavior and emphatically claim the child is defiant or difficult. The purpose of the behavior may be deemed as attention-seeking, an attempt to escape, fulfilling a sensory need, or an effort to obtain something tangible, but what if that is not the purpose at all? What if they have been crying out for help, but no one has listened, or worse, they’ve been punished because they’ve been telling you all along they were unable to complete a task the way you’d like?
In many instances, a child who exhibits this type of behavior is subsequently restrained by their teacher or other employee at their school and/or secluded from their peers and other adults. Encroaching on their personal space, physically touching, or speaking to them may exacerbate the incident. It is a no-win situation for the child. It is unlikely to change their “behavior” in the future. In fact, it may make it worse.
Back in the early 2000’s, I was required to be trained to safely restrain students when they became a danger to themselves, their peers, or a professional working in my classroom. My students all qualified for special education and were just beginning their time in public education. They ranged in age from 3 to 6 and had a wide variety of disabilities, from speech and language disorders to autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability to other health impairment. Restraint was not a practice we had to implement often, but when we did it was intense and draining for both the adult and the child.