Tag Archives: collaboration with parents

Another Moment in the Classroom with Ben


Ben had been having some rough times in school. There were several episodes of his pushing or pulling the hair of some of his classroom friends. The children who were pushed or whose hair was pulled were often his favorite playmates. Though they were upset at the time, they forgave Ben, and afterwards the teachers helped Ben apologize and make a repair, for example, by asking the child what he could do to make her feel better. However, his teachers worried that the behavior continued, the children would become afraid of him and begin to avoid Ben.

These episodes were unpredictable, and even in retrospect the sophisticated and sensitive teachers could not identify the precipitant of the aggressive outbursts. They happened when he seemed tired and when he was well rested, when he was frustrated or when he was having a calm, good time. It occurred to me that these outbursts were most likely as surprising to Ben as they were to those around him. I wondered if they were an impulsive response to environmental stimuli that was perceived as a threat or that suddenly stirred a strong negative affect – such as a noise, or an object intruding into his “space bubble”, or an otherwise imperceptible misattunement by a teacher or another child. If such a stimulus triggered an impulsive aggressive move, Ben might be oblivious to the whole process until it happened and he witnessed the stricken face of the other child. This sight would certainly generate feelings of shame and guilt in Ben. We definitely wanted to break this cycle.

Ben’s teachers had many good ideas about how to introduce a counterbalancing calming stimulus, such as something to squeeze. I wondered if there could be a way to make the link between the feeling and the action more explicit. During the weekend I attended a talk by a sensorimotor therapist, Pat Ogden. She showed a film of a child who threw objects in a similar impulsive gesture. The session was videotaped, which was helpful in identifying several moments when her father – present in the interview – shifted his attention to the therapist at just the time the girl was asking him to look at something she was doing. This was acknowledged. Then the therapist asked the child to make the gesture without the throw – extending her arm in an abrupt movement – and to talk about the feelings she had when she did that. The child was able to talk about her “impulses” and gain insight into them through pairing the pattern of body movement to her new awareness of the feelings. This was effective in changing the problem behavior.

I wondered if we could do something like this with Ben. In another tape in Pat’s talk, the therapist coached the patient to do the movement associated with a problematic affective position and then “slow it down”. I recalled how Bruce Perry has talked about slowing down a movement and then talking about what is going on. This then allows the cortex (thinking part of the brain) to engage with the motor experience of the body into make some kind of integrated meaning of the experience and give the individual more control over his body as well as insight into his feelings. I wanted to try something like this out on Ben. I will let you know how it works out.



A Little Followup on Ben and Transitions



Ben has continued to grow in his capacity for language and friendship. He is a happy child who loves his parents, his teachers, and his friends. He also seems to love school and the activities in the classroom and the playground.

In a brainstorming session in the classroom earlier in the year, his parents and teachers and I tried to come up with a plan that would make it easier for Ben to make the transition from bed to school. Although as I noted he loves school, he had a hard time making the transition from bed to getting ready for school in the morning. The teachers wondered if his parents could give him a job to do in the morning, since Ben delights in the jobs (meeting assistant, snack helper, etc.) he has at school. His parents followed through, and sure enough the job solution seemed to help the morning transition. The last time we spoke, his mother said that helping his father make breakfast or even do the laundry  (which everyone agreed was a less desirable job) facilitated the move from sleep state and cozy bed and mommy, to school.

It is important to add at this point that there is nothing magical in this kind of “strategy” and nothing that ensures that this particular good idea will help another child in another place and time. Yet, the idea emerged from a sharing of observations and impressions of Ben among important people in his life, and this collective effort to understand Ben is valuable in itself. The idea of a “job” was specific to one little individual, Ben, but I would guess that whenever teachers and parents engage in this kind of constructive process with or without someone like me, a similarly useful idea will result.

Another related thought is that “strategies” (parents and teachers frequently request them) are sort of Wizard of Oz phenomena. That is, their power may derive as much from the caregiver’s subjective response to them as to their inherent value. (I often think the same about medicine; perhaps some of the placebo effect is related to this.) If the caregiver asking for a strategy trusts in the wisdom of the authority – whether a person or a book – then the strategy has the potential of being helpful. The strategy and the authority behind it confer a sense of security or hope that works against the original helplessness experienced by the caregiver, and those positive feelings are communicated to the child.

And one more thought I have on the subject is that these strategies are placeholders in the child’s development. They can help children avoid getting stuck in their developmental paths and maintain their momentum so that they can continue to grow until the solution to a problem specific to one point in time is no longer needed.