One of the problems teachers and parents face every day is disruptive or inattentive behavior. Often this behavior is interpreted as noncompliant in some way – “not listening”, “not minding or obeying”, or “oppositional”. The more I learned from the OT’s I have worked with, the more I began to see some of this behavior as an attempt to do the very things that the teacher or parent wanted the child to do – listen, obey, comply – but it wasn’t working. In addition to these behaviors being ineffective, they also presented an even bigger problem. The behaviors became immersed in a social system with the parent, teacher, and also with peers, such that they accrued a negative meaning. This is what we worried would happen with Ben. In other words, the child is thinking, “If the teacher (or parent) looks disapproving or angry at me, I must be (doing something) bad.” I put the “doing something” in parentheses because young children usually think in concrete action terms, and so “doing something bad” easily becomes “bad” (a bad child) in their minds. The implicit social pattern persists, and everyone is miserable.
If, on the other hand, the parent or teacher could recognize the child who is squiggling or jittering as having the intention of staying alert and engaged, he or she might have a much more positive response and try to find some support for the child. Maybe the child could take a little break, maybe hold something or use some other sensory calming or organizing method.
I heard one of my favorite neuroscientists, Steve Porges, lecture in an excellent recent trauma conference. He talked about how immobilization in response to threat was risky, even life threatening sometimes (slowing heart rate and respiration). I thought about some of the children I knew who ran and flapped their hands and jumped. I knew that these behaviors were an implicit attempt at sensory organization, stimulation for the sake of organization, and this idea added another dimension. Of course it is hard to sit still if somewhere inside your brain (and not in the thinking part) you are starting to feel an increasing disorganization of your human system. That could make you feel – in the worst case – the threat of impending chaos. And worse yet, you would not be able to explain what was happening, even to yourself.
The bottom line is that we who work with young children must always take into consideration the original reason for his or her “disruptive” or “noncompliant” behavior and try to extend support to the child instead of disapproval.